Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona, 08193 Bellaterra, Barcelona, SPAIN.
Antarctica is a frozen continent surrounded by the sea with a deep continental platform characterized by constantly low temperatures. The seasonality of light and ice cover is responsible for the increase of the primary production of phytoplankton in spring-summer and the vertical flux of particulate organic matter (POM), composed by living fresh phytoplankton, faecal pellets and detritus. Suspension feeders and other sessile and vagile organisms have adapted their feeding strategies to these POM pulses. These organisms compose a highly diverse benthic community, regardless their original food source is either similar or not. The rather constant environmental conditions and the high productivity in the spring and summer seasons allow different morphological, feeding, energy storage and reproductive strategies, expressed in a highly diverse macrobenthic assemblages. The relationship of these benthic organisms and food dynamics is very complex and largely unknown, having multiple variants. Together with the deep-sea ecosystems, Antarctic and Arctic polar benthic ecosystems are difficult to reach, but the study of benthic-pelagic coupling is necessary to understand how Antarctic ecosystems will tolerate the ongoing transformation due mainly to the rapid climate change detected in some areas. It is vital to understand the trophic relationships, which are the sources of organic matter of the benthic suspension and detritus feeders diet and how the organisms acquire and invest the energy as a function of their trophic level.
The main objective of this work was studying the variations of the spatial-temporal response of benthos to the availability of organic matter changes, examining the environmental characteristics and their effects on the benthic communities in the Weddell Sea (Eastern Weddell Sea - Austassen-Kapp Norvegia and Antarctic Peninsula - the Bransfield Strait and Larsen A, B and C). In order to hypostatize this study, a combination of trophic markers was used, such as: stable isotopes, fatty acids, and biochemical balance (protein-carbohydrate-lipid). These markers integrate trophic signals, allowing a spatial and temporal comparison of organic matter accumulation and energy storage in benthic suspension feeders. The trophic ecology of sixteen representative species of benthic invertebrates was studied and producing a better interpretation of benthic-pelagic coupling of the still poorly known ecosystem.
The seven species of gorgonians (Primnoisis sp, Fannyella nodosa, Ainigmaptilon antarcticum, Notisis sp., Primnoella sp., Dasystenella sp. and Thouarella sp.) collected in the autumn of 2000 in Austasen, showed almost the same values of stable isotopes derived from the phytodetritus in the so called "green carpets" and the microzooplankton. The diet seemed to be based on sunk and re-suspended material, supporting the hypothesis that some suspension feeders deal successfully with the Antarctic winter thanks to this long-lasting food source. The biochemical balance indicated a different energy storage depending on the species and possibly its reproductive traits.
To understand the role of seasonality in benthic communities, the trophic ecology of the Alcyonarian Anthomastus bathyproctus in the late autumn and late summer in the Antarctic Peninsula was investigated. The main prey (the tunicate Salpa thompsoni) was considered in both seasons to understand its role in the energy budget and preferences of this passive suspension feeder. The main preys of the Alcyonarian were different when both seasons were compared. Although no seasonality was detected for S. thompsoni trophic markers, A. bathyproctus showed a predominantly carnivorous diet in late summer compared to late autumn, in which the signals belonged to a more omnivorous diet. The lipid values in S. thompsoni were more than three times higher in autumn than in summer, whilst those of A. bathyproctus were practically the same. A food pulse trophic strategy is suggested for this cnidarian, detecting a trophic seasonal pattern.
The last question proposed in the present Thesis is the potential effect of climate change in the trophic ecology of several benthic organisms (detritivores and suspension feeders) in the Larsen area, a recently opened to the considered normal cycle of the primary productivity in the Antarctic Peninsula due to the permanent ice shelf collapse. The study of nine benthic organisms (Ophiura carinifera, Ophioperla koehleri, Ophionotus victoriae, Pyura bouvetensis, Cnemidocarpa verrucosa, Primnoisis sp., Protelpidia murrayi, Bathyplotes fuscivinculum and Molpadia musculus), showed a gradient of food sources comparing the area of Larsen (where recent disintegration of the ice cover occur) and the Antarctic Peninsula (which never had ice shelf) in summer of 2011. The sedimented material was potentially part of the diet, but not a direct relationship between the sediment and the organisms on stable isotopes or fatty acids markers was found. The organisms showed an omnivore diet and some of them even present a typical carnivorous diet, based on non-fresh or reworked material in the Larsen areas studied, indicating that the system is in a clear successional process. On the other hand, depending on the feeding and life style strategy, there were considerable differences in the ability to store reserves in the lipids form, being the vagile species those that apparently accumulate less energy storage reserves (lipids). The present study indicates that these tools may be very useful to understand how the different succession stages of a transformed area due to the change in ice cover will affect the trophic ecology of the epibenthic organisms in the White Continent.
All the results contributed to a better understanding of the trophic ecology of the benthic community and their strategies to survive in a climate change panorama that has been rapidly and significantly changing those communities in the last decades, especially in the most affected areas like the Antarctic Peninsula.