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Near-surface enrichment of zooplankton over a shallow back reef: implications for coral reef food webs


Zooplankton were 3–8 times more abundant during the day near the surface than elsewhere in the water column over a 1–2.4 m deep back reef in Moorea, French Polynesia. Zooplankton were also significantly more abundant near the surface at night although gradients were most pronounced under moonlight. Zooplankton in a unidirectional current became concentrated near the surface within 2 m of departing a well-mixed trough immediately behind the reef crest, indicating that upward swimming behavior, rather than near-bottom depletion by reef planktivores, was the proximal cause of these gradients. Zooplankton were highly enriched near the surface before and after a full lunar eclipse but distributed evenly throughout the water column during the eclipse itself supporting light as a proximal cue for the upward swimming behavior of many taxa. This is the first investigation of the vertical distribution of zooplankton over a shallow back reef typical of island barrier reef systems common around the world. Previous studies on deeper fringing reefs found zooplankton depletion near the bottom but no enrichment aloft. In Moorea, where seawater is continuously recirculated out the lagoon and back across the reef crest onto the back reef, selection for upward swimming behavior may be especially strong, because the surface serves both as a refuge from predation and an optimum location for retention within the reef system. Planktivorous fish and corals that can forage or grow even marginally higher in the water column might have a substantial competitive advantage over those nearer the bottom on shallow reefs. Zooplankton abundance varied more over a few tens of centimeters vertical distance than it did between seasons or even between day and night indicating that great care must be taken to accurately assess the availability of zooplankton as food on shallow reefs.

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