Zooplankton gut passage mobilizes lithogenic iron for ocean productivity

Iron is an essential nutrient for phytoplankton, but low concentrations limit primary production and associated atmospheric carbon drawdown in large parts of the world’s oceans [ 1, 2 ]. Lithogenic particles deriving from aeolian dust deposition, glacial runoff, or river discharges can form an important source if the attached iron becomes dissolved and therefore bioavailable [ 3–5 ]. Acidic digestion by zooplankton is a potential mechanism for iron mobilization [ 6 ], but evidence is lacking. Here we show that Antarctic krill sampled near glacial outlets at the island of South Georgia (Southern Ocean) ingest large amounts of lithogenic particles and contain 3-fold higher iron concentrations in their muscle than specimens from offshore, which confirms mineral dissolution in their guts. About 90% of the lithogenic and biogenic iron ingested by krill is passed into their fecal pellets, which contain ∼5-fold higher proportions of labile (reactive) iron than intact diatoms. The mobilized iron can be released in dissolved form directly from krill or via multiple pathways involving microbes, other zooplankton, and krill predators. This can deliver substantial amounts of bioavailable iron and contribute to the fertilization of coastal waters and the ocean beyond. In line with our findings, phytoplankton blooms downstream of South Georgia are more intensive and longer lasting during years with high krill abundance on-shelf. Thus, krill crop phytoplankton but boost new production via their nutrient supply. Understanding and quantifying iron mobilization by zooplankton is essential to predict ocean productivity in a warming climate where lithogenic iron inputs from deserts, glaciers, and rivers are increasing [ 7–10 ].


Authors: Schmidt, Katrin, Schlosser, Christian, Atkinson, Angus, Fielding, Sophie, Venables, Hugh J., Waluda, Claire M., Achterberg, Eric P.

On this site: Claire Waluda, Hugh Venables, Sophie Fielding
1 October, 2016
Current Biology / 26
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