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Photoprotective benefits of pigmentation in the transparent plankton community: a comparative species experimental test.

  • Author(s): Bashevkin, Samuel M;
  • Christy, John H;
  • Morgan, Steven G
  • et al.

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Plankton live under the countervailing selective pressures of predation and ultraviolet radiation (UVR). In lakes, zooplankton are transparent reducing visibility to predatory fishes but are pigmented in the absence of fishes, hypothetically reducing UVR damage. In the sea, planktivorous fishes are widespread, so plankton typically are transparent and ascend to productive surface waters at night to forage and descend during the day to reduce visibility to predators. However, larvae of some species face the unique constraint of traveling in surface currents in the daytime during migrations between adult and larval habitats. We would expect these larvae to be transparent since companion studies demonstrated increased predation risk of pigmented larvae under strong sunlight. Paradoxically, larvae range from being darkly to lightly pigmented. We hypothesize that some larvae are more heavily pigmented to reduce UVR damage, while other species travelling in subsurface currents with low UVR might be more transparent. Linking larval morphology to depth-dependent selective pressures would add a key element to help improve predictions of larval vertical distributions, which are important for simulating larval transport trajectories. We quantitatively tested the hypothesis that selection may have favored photoprotective pigmentation for larvae in the predominantly transparent plankton community while testing the differential effects of UVA and UVB radiation. We measured larval pigmentation of 12 species of crabs and exposed them to visible light only, visible + UVA, or visible + UVA + UVB in the tropics. Controlling for phylogeny, more pigmented species survived UVR better than less pigmented species, especially on sunnier days, though intraspecific comparisons for four species were equivocal. Most species died even from UVA exposure, which has long been regarded as relatively harmless despite penetrating deeper underwater than UVB. Thus, we demonstrate with a phylogenetically controlled analysis that crab larvae are pigmented in the predominantly transparent planktonic community to protect from UVR, improving our understanding of the selective forces acting on animal coloration and the factors determining planktonic distributions, survival, and dispersal. This linkage of morphology with susceptibility will be important for developing mechanistic models of environmental stress responses to better predict larval dispersal in current and future climates.

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