Theses Doctoral

Antarctic krill fecal pellets – a unique bacterial habitat and mediator of carbon export

Trinh, Rebecca

The global climate is strongly regulated by the oceans, which store carbon away from the atmosphere for long periods. In an effort to understand the role of the oceans in the carbon cycle, it is necessary to understand the nuances of specific regional and functional marine ecosystems. The continental shelf of the West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) is one particularly important regional ecosystem that plays a vital role in the Southern Ocean carbon export. Within the seasonally productive marginal ice zone of the WAP, I sought to identify the long-term drivers of particulate organic carbon (POC) flux.

The vast majority of exported POC on the WAP was previously found to be made up of krill fecal pellets. I provide evidence that supports the hypothesis that the inherent life cycle of krill drives the observed 5-year oscillation in POC export. At the end of their life cycle, when krill are at their largest body size, the WAP experiences anomalously high POC export events through the production and sinking of large, carbon-rich krill fecal pellets. Conversely, when krill are young and small, POC export is anomalously low.

This pattern shows that ecology exerts a first-order control on the the biogeochemical cycles of the WAP. Upon identifying the source and driver of POC export on the WAP, I set out to determine the role heterotrophic bacteria play in POC flux attenuation. I collected krill fecal pellets on the WAP over three years and measured bacterial metabolic activity in terms of bacterial production and respiration, thereby identifying the amount of organic carbon within the sinking fecal pellets that is lost due to bacteria. Overall, fecal pellet POC turnover rate by bacteria is very low. The relationship between bacteria and POC is complex with each having an affect on the other. Despite varied reactions of the free-living bacterial populations to the presence of krill fecal pellets, a consistent pattern emerged in the concentration of nucleic acid within each bacterial cell. Access to fecal pellets increased the metabolic activity of the free-living bacterial population. This finding shows that the egestion of krill fecal pellets metabolically stimulates the surrounding bacterial community, even though bacteria play a minor role in fecal pellet POC flux attenuation.

Though bacteria were found to play a minimal role in organic carbon uptake on krill fecal pellets, they are still vital members of the WAP ecosystem and biological pump. I next sought to identify which bacteria in particular were responsible for colonizing and consuming the fecal pellet POC. Krill fecal pellets were genetically sequenced after timed exposure to the free-living water column bacterial community. I found that there is an endemic population of bacteria that are associated with each population of krill and their fecal pellets. This community of fecal pellet-associated bacteria does not change over time, indicating little colonization by free-living bacteria. Krill fecal pellets, aside from being good agents of POC export, seem to be selective environments for certain specialized copiotrophic bacteria. Further, I find that only a small subset of these endemic copiotrophs actively partake in carbon consumption on krill fecal pellets. Overall, these results show that a small endemic, specialized bacterial community play an outsized role in krill fecal pellet POC degradation and flux attenuation, but that krill fecal pellets remain efficient agents of carbon export to the deep ocean.


  • thumnail for Trinh_columbia_0054D_17520.pdf Trinh_columbia_0054D_17520.pdf application/pdf 4.48 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Ducklow, Hugh W.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 12, 2022