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American Association for the Advancement of Science

For some algae, it pays to be little

Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis S. St. Laurent on oceanographic survey in the Canada Basin of the Arctic Ocean in August 2007 finds that the smallest algae thrive as climate changes.
[Image courtesy of Fisheries and Oceans Canada]

Climate-driven changes to the Arctic Ocean are making "ecological winners" out of the small guys in the region, the tiny, marine algae called picoplankton, scientists have found. These itsy bitsy organisms are less than 2 micrometers across, smaller than the naked eye can see.

William Li of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia and his colleagues report that these algae are handling climate change better than their larger cousins. Warmer temperatures, increased precipitation and greater ice melt and runoff have produced fresher Arctic surface waters that are less nutrient-rich than deeper water. The high surface area to volume ratio of picoplankton gives the algae a competitive edge over larger plankton when it comes to extracting food from the upper waters.

As a result, the smaller algae have increased in numbers since 2004, while populations of some larger algae have dwindled.

If the dominance of tiny plankton persists, say the researchers, it could have important effects on the way carbon moves through marine ecosystems. This study appears in the 23 October issue of the journal Science.