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Heterogeneity in zooplankton distributions and vertical migrations: Application of a laser optical plankton counter in offshore Lake Michigan

Scofield, Anne E., Watkins, James M., Rudstam, Lars G.
Journal of Great Lakes research 2020 v.46 no.4 pp. 780-797
biomass, fish feeding, phytoplankton, planktivores, surface water, zooplankton, Lake Michigan
Zooplankton distributions are patchy due to multiple physical, chemical, and biological processes, including diel vertical migration (DVM) behavior. Heterogeneity in the offshore environment is difficult to study with net tows, but newer technologies measure finer-scale distributions. Here, we use laser optical plankton counter (LOPC) data, informed by net tows, to study distributions and DVM of zooplankton in offshore Lake Michigan during July and September 2015. Water column (5–60 m) zooplankton biomass varied by an order of magnitude among transects and a factor of two within individual transects (6–19 km distances); transect coefficients of variation (SD/mean) ranged from 7 to 22% (~0.5 km scale). Horizontal patterns in zooplankton biomass varied among size groups but were consistent from day to night, suggesting that processes driving heterogeneity persist for hours to days. Fine-scale LOPC data show that zooplankton often aggregate in thin layers (1–3 m) within the metalimnion, a feature undetectable by coarser net sampling. Although DVM was not consistently observed, some patterns emerged. Small zooplankton including copepodites, diaptomids (Leptodiaptomus ashlandi, L. minutus), and Diacyclops thomasi often migrated to surface waters at night, and large zooplankton (Limnocalanus macrurus) migrated upward at night in most cases. Beam attenuation coefficient (proxy for phytoplankton biomass) was a significant predictor for zooplankton mean depth (p < 0.001) although it explained more of the variation for night data (R² = 0.72) than day data (R² = 0.53). The heterogeneity observed in zooplankton distributions has implications for planktivorous fish feeding in the offshore zone, as prey density varies greatly with depth.