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Ann Rev Mar Sci. 2012;4:177-207.

Thin phytoplankton layers: characteristics, mechanisms, and consequences.

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Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.


For over four decades, aggregations of phytoplankton known as thin layers have been observed to harbor large amounts of photosynthetic cells within narrow horizontal bands. Field observations have revealed complex linkages among thin phytoplankton layers, the physical environment, cell behavior, and higher trophic levels. Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain layer formation and persistence, in the face of the homogenizing effect of turbulent dispersion. The challenge ahead is to connect mechanistic hypotheses with field observations to gain better insight on the phenomena that shape layer dynamics. Only through a mechanistic understanding of the relevant biological and physical processes can we begin to predict the effect of thin layers on the ecology of phytoplankton and higher organisms.

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