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2.5.3: Aquatic Biomes - Biology

2.5.3: Aquatic Biomes - Biology


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Abiotic Factors Influencing Aquatic Biomes

Like terrestrial biomes, aquatic biomes are influenced by a series of abiotic factors. Even if the water in a pond or other body of water is perfectly clear (there are no suspended particles), water still absorbs light. As one descends into a deep body of water, there will eventually be a depth which the sunlight cannot reach. While there are some abiotic and biotic factors in a terrestrial ecosystem that might obscure light (like fog, dust, or insect swarms), usually these are not permanent features of the environment. The importance of light in aquatic biomes is central to the communities of organisms found in both freshwater and marine ecosystems. In freshwater systems, temperature stratification due to differences in density is perhaps the most critical abiotic factor and is related to the energy aspects of light. The thermal properties of water (rates of heating and cooling) are significant to the function of marine systems and have major impacts on global climate and weather patterns. Marine systems are also influenced by large-scale physical water movements, such as currents; these are less important in most freshwater lakes.

Marine Biomes

The ocean is the largest marine biome. It is a continuous body of salt water that is relatively uniform in chemical composition; it is a weak solution of mineral salts and decayed biological matter. Within the ocean, coral reefs are a second kind of marine biome. Estuaries, coastal areas where salt water and fresh water mix, form a third unique marine biome.

Ocean

The physical diversity of the ocean is a significant influence on plants, animals, and other organisms. The ocean is categorized by several areas (Figure (PageIndex{a})). Each area has a distinct group of species adapted to the biotic and abiotic conditions particular to it. The intertidal zone, which is the zone between high and low tide, is the oceanic region that is closest to land. Generally, most people think of this portion of the ocean as a sandy beach. In some cases, the intertidal zone is indeed a sandy beach, but it can also be rocky or muddy. Organisms are exposed to air and sunlight at low tide and are underwater most of the time, especially during high tide. Therefore, living things that thrive in the intertidal zone are adapted to being dry for long periods of time. The shore of the intertidal zone is also repeatedly struck by waves, and the organisms found there are adapted to withstand damage from the pounding action of the waves (figure (PageIndex{b})). The exoskeletons of shoreline crustaceans (such as the shore crab, Carcinus maenas) are tough and protect them from desiccation (drying out) and wave damage. Another consequence of the pounding waves is that few algae and plants establish themselves in the constantly moving rocks, sand, or mud.

Figure (PageIndex{a}): The ocean is divided into different zones based on water depth and distance from the shoreline.

Figure (PageIndex{b}): Sea urchins, mussel shells, and starfish are often found in the intertidal zone, shown here in Kachemak Bay, Alaska. (credit: NOAA)

The neritic zone extends from the intertidal zone to depths of about 200 m (or 650 ft) at the edge of the continental shelf. Because light can penetrate this depth, photosynthesis can occur. The water here contains silt and is well-oxygenated, low in pressure, and stable in temperature. Phytoplankton and floating Sargassum (a type of free-floating marine seaweed) provide a habitat for some sea life found in the neritic zone. Zooplankton, protists, small fishes, and shrimp are found in the neritic zone and are the base of the food chain for most of the world’s fisheries.

Beyond the neritic zone is the open ocean area known as the oceanic zone. Within the oceanic zone there is thermal stratification where warm and cold waters mix because of ocean currents. Abundant plankton serve as the base of the food chain for larger animals such as whales and dolphins. Nutrients are scarce and this is a relatively less productive part of the marine biome. When photosynthetic organisms and the protists and animals that feed on them die, their bodies fall to the bottom of the ocean where they remain.

All of the ocean’s open water is referred to as the pelagic realm. The pelagic realm is divided into the photic, aphotic, and abyssal zones from top to bottom based on how far light reaches into the water. The photic zone, which is the portion of the ocean that light can penetrate (approximately 200 m or 650 ft). At depths greater than 200 m, light cannot penetrate; thus, this is referred to as the aphotic zone. The majority of organisms in the aphotic zone include sea cucumbers (phylum Echinodermata) and other organisms that survive on the nutrients contained in the dead bodies of organisms in the photic zone.

The deepest part of the ocean is the abyssal zone, which is at depths of 4000 m or greater. Both the aphotic and abyssal zones lack sufficient light for photosynthesis, and together, they constitute most of the ocean. The deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep (in the Mariana Trench, located in the western Pacific Ocean), is about 11,000 m (about 6.8 mi) deep. To give some perspective on the depth of this trench, the ocean is, on average, 4267 m deep. These zones are relevant to freshwater lakes as well. The abyssal zone is very cold and has very high pressure, high oxygen content, and low nutrient content. There are a variety of invertebrates and fishes found in this zone, but the abyssal zone does not have plants because of the lack of light. Cracks in the Earth’s crust called hydrothermal vents are found primarily in the abyssal zone (figure (PageIndex{c})). Around these vents, bacteria that utilize the hydrogen sulfide and other minerals emitted as an energy source serve as the base of the food chain found in the abyssal zone.

Figure (PageIndex{c}): A hydrothermal vent. Image by NOAA (public domain).

The benthic realm, extends along the ocean bottom from the shoreline to the deepest parts of the ocean floor. It is comprised of sand, silt, and dead organisms. This is a nutrient-rich portion of the ocean because of the dead organisms that fall from the upper layers of the ocean. Because of this high level of nutrients, a diversity of sponges, sea anemones, marine worms, sea stars, fishes, and bacteria exist.

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are characterized by high biodiversity and the structures created by invertebrates that live in warm, shallow waters within the photic zone of the ocean. They are mostly found within 30 degrees north and south of the equator. The Great Barrier Reef is a well-known reef system located several miles off the northeastern coast of Australia. The coral organisms are colonies of saltwater polyps that secrete a calcium carbonate skeleton. These calcium-rich skeletons slowly accumulate, forming the underwater reef (figure (PageIndex{d})).

Figure (PageIndex{d}): Coral reefs are formed by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral organisms, which are marine invertebrates. (credit: Terry Hughes)

Corals found in shallower waters (at a depth of approximately 60 m or about 200 ft) have a mutualistic relationship with photosynthetic unicellular algae called dinoflagellates. The relationship provides corals with the majority of the nutrition and the energy they require. The waters in which these corals live are nutritionally poor, and, without this mutualism, it would not be possible for large corals to grow. Some corals living in deeper and colder water do not have a mutualistic relationship with algae; these corals attain energy and nutrients using stinging cells on their tentacles to capture prey. It is estimated that more than 4,000 fish species inhabit coral reefs. These fishes can feed on coral, other invertebrates, or the seaweed and algae that are associated with the coral.

Estuaries: Where the Ocean Meets Fresh Water

Estuaries are biomes that occur where a source of fresh water, such as a river, meets the ocean. Therefore, both fresh water and salt water are found in the same vicinity; mixing results in a diluted (brackish) saltwater. Estuaries form protected areas where many of the young offspring of crustaceans, mollusks, and fish begin their lives. Salinity is a very important factor that influences the organisms and the adaptations of the organisms found in estuaries. The salinity of estuaries varies and is based on the rate of flow of its freshwater sources. Once or twice a day, high tides bring salt water into the estuary. Low tides occurring at the same frequency reverse the current of salt water.

The short-term and rapid variation in salinity due to the mixing of fresh water and salt water is a difficult physiological challenge for the plants and animals that inhabit estuaries. Many estuarine plant species are halophytes, plants that can tolerate salty conditions. Halophytic plants are adapted to deal with the salinity resulting from saltwater on their roots or from sea spray. In some halophytes, filters in the roots remove the salt from the water that the plant absorbs. Other plants are able to pump oxygen into their roots. Animals, such as mussels and clams, have developed behavioral adaptations that expend a lot of energy to function in this rapidly changing environment. When these animals are exposed to low salinity, they stop feeding, close their shells, and stop using oxygen. When high tide returns to the estuary, the salinity and oxygen content of the water increases, and these animals open their shells, begin feeding, and return to using oxygen.

Freshwater Biomes

Freshwater biomes include lakes and ponds (standing water) as well as rivers and streams (flowing water). They also include wetlands, which will be discussed later. Humans rely on freshwater biomes to provide aquatic resources for drinking water, crop irrigation, sanitation, and industry. These various roles and human benefits are referred to as ecosystem services. Lakes and ponds are found in terrestrial landscapes and are, therefore, connected with abiotic and biotic factors influencing these terrestrial biomes.

Lakes and Ponds

Lakes and ponds can range in area from a few square meters to thousands of square kilometers. Temperature is an important abiotic factor affecting living things found in lakes and ponds. In the summer, thermal stratification of lakes and ponds occurs when the upper layer of water is warmed by the sun and does not mix with deeper, cooler water. Like oceans, lakes and ponds have photoic zones through which light can penetrate and aphotic zones without light. Phytoplankton (small photosynthetic organisms such as algae and photosynthetic bacteria that float in the water) are found here and carry out photosynthesis, providing the base of the food web of lakes and ponds. Zooplankton (very small animals that float in the water), such as rotifers and small crustaceans, consume these phytoplankton (figure (PageIndex{e})). At the bottom of lakes and ponds, bacteria in the aphotic zone break down dead organisms that sink to the bottom.

Figure (PageIndex{e}): A rotifer is an example of the zooplankton found in lakes and ponds. Image by Bob Blaylock at English Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA).

Rivers and Streams

Rivers and streams are continuously moving bodies of water that carry large amounts of water from the source, or headwater, to a lake or ocean. The largest rivers include the Nile River in Africa, the Amazon River in South America (Figure (PageIndex{f})), and the Mississippi River in North America. Abiotic features of rivers and streams vary along the length of the river or stream. Streams begin at a point of origin referred to as source water. The source water is usually cold, low in nutrients, and clear. The channel (the width of the river or stream) is narrower than at any other place along the length of the river or stream. Because of this, the current is often faster here than at any other point of the river or stream.

Figure (PageIndex{f}): The Amazon River is the world's largest river. Image by Jason Hollinger (CC-BY)

The fast-moving water results in minimal silt accumulation at the bottom of the river or stream, therefore the water is clear. Photosynthesis here is mostly attributed to algae that are growing on rocks; the swift current inhibits the growth of phytoplankton. An additional input of energy can come from leaves or other organic material that falls into the river or stream from trees and other plants that border the water. When the leaves decompose, the organic material and nutrients in the leaves are returned to the water. Plants and animals have adapted to this fast-moving water. For instance, leeches have elongated bodies and suckers on both ends. These suckers attach to the substrate, keeping the leech anchored in place. Freshwater trout species are an important predator in these fast-moving rivers and streams.

As the river or stream flows away from the source, the width of the channel gradually widens and the current slows. This slow-moving water, caused by the gradient decrease and the volume increase as tributaries unite, has more sedimentation. Phytoplankton can also be suspended in slow-moving water. Therefore, the water will not be as clear as it is near the source. The water is also warmer. Worms and insects can be found burrowing into the mud. The higher order predator vertebrates include waterfowl, frogs, and fishes.

Wetlands

Wetlands are environments in which the soil is either permanently or periodically saturated with water. Wetlands are different from lakes because wetlands are shallow bodies of water that may periodically dry out. Emergent vegetation consists of wetland plants that are rooted in the soil but have portions of leaves, stems, and flowers extending above the water’s surface. There are several types of wetlands including marshes, swamps, bogs, mudflats, and salt marshes (figure (PageIndex{g})).

Figure (PageIndex{g}): Located in southern Florida, Everglades National Park is vast array of wetland environments, including sawgrass marshes, cypress swamps, and estuarine mangrove forests. Here, a Great Egret walks among cypress trees. (credit: NPS)

Attribution

Modified by Melissa Ha from Aquatic Biomes from Environmental Biology by Matthew R. Fisher (licensed under CC-BY)


Watch the video: Aquatic Biomes. Biology (October 2022).