Of all plankton groups, probably most is known about the copepods. They represent a critical link in the food chain and are consumed by diverse animal community ranging in size from small fish, chaetognaths, and ctenophores all the way up to large whales (the right whale is a voracious copepod feeder). Because of their small size and importance as food, copepods are affectionately known as “the rice of the sea.” Copepods are effectively captured by plankton nets because they have hard exoskeletons, and scientists have good estimates of their abundances and distributions. Although copepods are all relatively small (0.5 mm – 5 mm in length), they comprise over 200 families and 10,000 different species.
Copepods consume both phytoplankton and microzooplankton in two different ways: suspension feeding and raptorial feeding. Suspension feeding is relatively passive and performed by beating small appendages that draw a current through a feeding chamber. Copepods then select which particles encountered are food and discard others. Raptorial feeding is used to actively capture prey. Many copepods have small sensors on their first appendages to detect water disturbances produced by prey and also predators. They can use these relatively large appendages to “hop” through the water and capture an unsuspecting prey item or to quickly escape a predator.
Copepod reproductive strategies vary greatly and are adapted towards the ability to withstand the variable conditions that characterize the ocean environment. For example, many copepod eggs have the ability to enter a phase of diapause where they remain viable on the bottom for several months or even years, only hatching with conditions are favorable (high concentrations of food). Some copepods carry their eggs, allowing them to develop a bit before releasing them into the water column. The timing of copepod reproduction is especially important for the life cycle of fishes because most fish larvae depend on the recently hatched copepod nauplii for food. If there are not enough copepod nauplii present when fish larvae are abundant, there could be mass starvation events causing few fish larvae to reach their juvenile stage. Because of this, the copepod life cycle is extremely important to fish populations and overall ocean ecosystem health.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of copepods is their tendency to aggregate in discrete thin layers within the water column. Sometimes >90% of the copepod biomass will be confined these thin layers, which are a maximum of 5 m thick. ISIIS and other systems that sample on small scales are ideal for detecting these layers of copepods, and the function of the formation and dissipation of copepod thin layers is not well understood. Copepods have been shown to be attracted to strong changes in current direction and speed, potentially allowing them to feed at a faster rate within these zones (Woodson et al. 2005). The changes in environmental variables associated with aggregations of copepods are of great interest to marine ecologists. With your help, we can better understand how these extremely important organisms are distributed throughout our oceans!
Johnson WS, Allen DM (2005) Zooplankton of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts: A guide to their identification and ecology. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, MD.
Woodson CB, Webster DR, Weissburg MJ, Yen J (2005) Response of copepods to physical gradients associated with structure in the ocean. Limnol Oceanogr 50:1552-1564