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Krill are best known as whale food. But few people realize that these small, shrimp-like creatures are also important to the health of the ocean and the atmosphere. In fact, Antarctic krill can fertilize the oceans, ultimately supporting marine life from tiny plankton through to massive whales and, through their ****, they can increase the store of carbon in the deep ocean.
In a review we recently published in Nature Communications, we highlighted this less well-known role of Antarctic krill.
Krill - Oceans - Store - Carbon - Nutrients
Krill are able to fertilize the oceans and help store carbon because they release essential nutrients, including ammonium and iron, into the surrounding water, either excreted as a waste product or in solid faecal pellets. These nutrients can then be used by tiny ocean plants at the base of most marine food webs (phytoplankton) to photosynthesize and grow. This is much the same process as humans adding nutrients to a field through a fertilizer.
The Southern Ocean surrounds Antarctica and is a long way from landmasses from which nutrients are washed into the ocean. As a result, nutrient concentrations can be low, particularly of iron which is essential for phytoplankton to grow. Concentrations tend to be highest near the Antarctic continent itself, its sea-ice and a few remote islands.
Krill - Waste - Carbon - Cycle - Krill
Krill waste also influences the carbon cycle. Krill poo is in the form of relatively large, carbon-rich pellets which can sink quickly to the deep ocean where they may remain for many years. This means krill poo can lock carbon away from the atmosphere for long periods of time.
Our synthesis has highlighted that young krill who live near sea-ice may be particularly important in the carbon sink. This is because they live deeper in the water column than adult krill. So any pellets released by younger krill have a better chance of escaping any ocean...
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