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Robotic biomimicry demonstrates behavioral control of planktonic dispersal in the sea

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Plankton are widely considered to be at the mercy of ocean currents, even after decades of research revealing that plankton regulate dispersal by positioning themselves in surface and bottom currents flowing in different directions. The degree of effectiveness of these behaviors remains controversial, because tiny plankters cannot be tracked at sea. Here, we experimentally tested the effectiveness of 3 vertical positioning behaviors in nature by developing a biomimetic robot that emulates them. We conducted a challenging test by deploying them in complex circulation during strong upwelling winds and wind relaxation and reversal events. Behavior alone dramatically affected transport. Transport trajectories of robots with 3 different behaviors diverged markedly while those sharing the same behavior were very similar. Moreover, all 3 behaviors produced trajectories that matched previously modeled projections during both upwelling and relaxation conditions at the study site: shallow plankton disperse far, deep plankton move little, and plankton migrating from depth during the day to the surface at night travel an intermediate distance. The ability of weakly swimming plankton to control their fate and replenish populations in a dynamic ocean is of central importance to the ecology and evolution of marine life and to the management of resources in a changing climate.

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