Predator-Induced Fleeing Behaviors in Phytoplankton: A New Mechanism for Harmful Algal Bloom Formation?

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In the plankton, heterotrophic microbes encounter and ingest phytoplankton prey, which effectively removes >50% of daily phytoplankton production in the ocean and influences global primary production and biochemical cycling rates. Factors such as size, shape, nutritional value, and presence of chemical deterrents are known to affect predation pressure. Effects of movement behaviors of either predator or prey on predation pressure, and particularly fleeing behaviors in phytoplankton are thus far unknown. Here, we quantified individual 3D movements, population distributions, and survival rates of the toxic phytoplankton species, Heterosigma akashiwo in response to a ciliate predator and predator-derived cues. We observed predator-induced defense behaviors previously unknown for phytoplankton. Modulation of individual phytoplankton movements during and after predator exposure resulted in an effective separation of predator and prey species. The strongest avoidance behaviors were observed when H. akashiwo co-occurred with an actively grazing predator. Predator-induced changes in phytoplankton movements resulted in a reduction in encounter rate and a 3-fold increase in net algal population growth rate. A spatially explicit population model predicted rapid phytoplankton bloom formation only when fleeing behaviors were incorporated. These model predictions reflected field observations of rapid H. akashiwo harmful algal bloom (HAB) formation in the coastal ocean. Our results document a novel behavior in phytoplankton that can significantly reduce predation pressure and suggests a new mechanism for HAB formation. Phytoplankton behaviors that minimize predatory losses, maximize resource acquisition, and alter community composition and distribution patterns could have major implications for our understanding and predictive capacity of marine primary production and biochemical cycling rates. © 2012 Harvey, Menden-Deuer.




Harvey, E. L., & Menden-Deuer, S. (2012). Predator-Induced Fleeing Behaviors in Phytoplankton: A New Mechanism for Harmful Algal Bloom Formation? PLoS ONE, 7(9).

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