Dependency of Antarctic zooplankton species on ice algae-produced carbon suggests a sea ice-driven pelagic ecosystem during winter

Doreen Kohlbach*, Martin Graeve, Benjamin A. Lange, Carmen David, Fokje L. Schaafsma, Jan Andries van Franeker, Martina Vortkamp, Angelika Brandt, Hauke Flores

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


How the abundant pelagic life of the Southern Ocean survives winter darkness, when the sea is covered by pack ice and phytoplankton production is nearly zero, is poorly understood. Ice-associated (“sympagic”) microalgae could serve as a high-quality carbon source during winter, but their significance in the food web is so far unquantified. To better understand the importance of ice algae-produced carbon for the overwintering of Antarctic organisms, we investigated fatty acid (FA) and stable isotope compositions of 10 zooplankton species, and their potential sympagic and pelagic carbon sources. FA-specific carbon stable isotope compositions were used in stable isotope mixing models to quantify the contribution of ice algae-produced carbon (αIce) to the body carbon of each species. Mean αIce estimates ranged from 4% to 67%, with large variations between species and depending on the FA used for the modelling. Integrating the αIce estimates from all models, the sympagic amphipod Eusirus laticarpus was the most dependent on ice algal carbon (αIce: 54%–67%), and the salp Salpa thompsoni showed the least dependency on ice algal carbon (αIce: 8%–40%). Differences in αIceestimates between FAs associated with short-term vs. long-term lipid pools suggested an increasing importance of ice algal carbon for many species as the winter season progressed. In the abundant winter-active copepod Calanus propinquus, mean αIce reached more than 50% in late winter. The trophic carbon flux from ice algae into this copepod was between 3 and 5 mg C m−2 day−1. This indicates that copepods and other ice-dependent zooplankton species transfer significant amounts of carbon from ice algae into the pelagic system, where it fuels the food web, the biological carbon pump and elemental cycling. Understanding the role of ice algae-produced carbon in these processes will be the key to predictions of the impact of future sea ice decline on Antarctic ecosystem functioning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4667-4681
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number10
Early online date12 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018


  • Antarctic food web
  • carbon sources
  • climate change
  • Compound-specific Stable Isotope Analysis
  • marker fatty acids
  • sea ice algae
  • under-ice community


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