Variable food absorption by Antarctic krill: Relationships between diet, egestion rate and the composition and sinking rates of their fecal pellets
The kinetics of food processing by zooplankton affects both their energy budgets and the biogeochemical fate of their fecal pellets. We sampled 40 schools of krill across the Scotia Sea during spring, summer and autumn and found that in all 3 seasons, every aspect of their absorption and defecation varied greatly. The C content of fecal pellets varied from 0.85% to 29% of their dry mass (median 9.8%) and C egestion rates varied 75-fold. C:N mass ratios of pellets ranged from 4.9 to 13.2 (median 7.8), higher than values of 3.9 in the krill and 5.4 in their food, pointing to enhanced uptake of N. Pellet sinking rates equated to 27–1218 m d−1 (median 304 m d−1), being governed mainly by pellet diameter (80–600 μm, mean 183 μm) and density (1.038–1.391 g cm−3, mean 1.121 g cm−3). Pellets showed little loss of C or N in filtered seawater over the first 2 days and were physically robust. When feeding rates were low, slow gut passage time and high absorption efficiency resulted in low egestion rates of pellets that were low in C and N content. These pellets were compact, dense and fast-sinking. Conversely, in good feeding conditions much food tended to pass quickly through the gut and was not efficiently absorbed, producing C and N-rich, slow-sinking pellets. Such “superfluous feeding” probably maximises the absolute rates of nutrient absorption. Food composition was also important: diatom-rich diets depressed the C content of the pellets but increased their sinking rates, likely due to silica ballasting. So depending on how krill process food, their pellets could represent both vehicles for rapid export and slow sinking, C and N-rich food sources for pelagic scavengers. C egestion rates by krill averaged 3.4% of summer primary production (and ingestion rates would be 2–10-fold higher than this) so whatever the fate of the pellets, krill are an important re-packager within the food web. While salp pellets tend to sink faster than those of krill, it is the latter that tend to prevail in sediment traps. We suggest that this is because krill schools are more compact, producing “rain showers” of pellets that exceed the capacity of pelagic scavengers to reprocess them.