Phytoplankton sinking is an important property that can determine community composition in the photic zone and material loss to the deep ocean. To date, studies of diatom suspension have relied on bulk measurements with assumptions that bulk rates adequately capture the essential characteristics of diatom sinking. However, recent work has illustrated that individual diatom sinking rates vary considerably from the mean bulk rate. In this study, we apply high-resolution optical techniques, individual-based observations of diatom sinking and a recently developed method of flow visualization around freely sinking cells. The results show that in both field samples and laboratory cultures, some large species of centric diatoms are capable of a novel behaviour, whereby cells undergo bursts of rapid sinking that alternate with near-zero sinking rates on the timescales of seconds. We also demonstrate that this behaviour is under direct metabolic control of the cell. We discuss these results in the context of implications for nutrient flux to the cell surface. While nutrient flux in large diatoms increases during fast sinking, current mass transport models cannot incorporate the unsteady sinking behaviour observed in this study. However, large diatoms appear capable of benefiting from the enhanced nutrient flux to their surface during rapid sinking even during brief intervening periods of near-zero sinking rates.
Electronic supplementary material is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.3473667.
- Received May 20, 2016.
- Accepted September 12, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.