BIOS Scientist Awarded NSF Funding for Zooplankton Research


A team of scientists, led by BIOS zooplankton ecologist Leocadio Blanco-Bercial, received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the structure of zooplankton communities in the ocean’s twilight zone. The study will leverage samples collected by Blanco-Bercial (right) and co-investigator Amy Maas (left), a BIOS comparative physiologist, on two previous NSF-funded research cruises conducted as part of the Ocean Acidification Pteropod Study Project (OAPS) in 2011 and 2012.

Earlier this year, Leocadio Blanco-Bercial, a zooplankton ecologist at BIOS, was awarded funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a three-year investigation to determine how environmental variables, such as temperature and oxygen, influence the structure of zooplankton communities found within the ocean’s twilight zone (depths between 650 to 3000 feet, or 200 to 1000 meters), also known as the “midwater.”

Blanco-Bercial is joined by co-investigators Amy Maas, a comparative physiologist and biological oceanographer at BIOS; Danie Kinkade, an information systems associate at the Biological and Chemical Oceanography Data Management Office (BCO-DMO) at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts; and Kaitlin Noyes, director of education and community engagement at BIOS.

“The structure of the planktonic food web plays a fundamental role in regulating the export of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus to the deep ocean in a process called the biological pump,” Blanco-Bercial said. “But the efficiency of this export depends on the composition of the midwater zooplankton community.” In this region, migratory zooplankton species move up and down throughout the water column and actively transport these materials, while stationary species repackage and transform the nutrients by feeding on them.

The project will leverage existing samples obtained from two previous NSF-funded research cruises conducted as part of the Ocean Acidification Pteropod Study Project (OAPS). In 2011 and 2012, OAPS conducted research cruises in the North Atlantic and North Pacific, respectively, to investigate the distribution, abundance, species composition, shell condition, and vertical migratory behavior of marine pteropods—free-swimming marine snails, most of which are less than 0.3 inches (1 cm) in length. Both cruises collected samples across multiple distinct ecological regions (or biogeography)—temperate, Arctic/boreal, tropical, and subtropical—and at various depths through the midwater.

With these samples, Blanco-Bercial and Maas will use image analysis technology and metabarcoding (the large-scale taxonomic identification of samples using analysis of DNA sequences) to determine if, and to what extent, midwater zooplankton communities are shaped by environmental variables, including biogeography, and how this influences their contributions to the biological pump.

The project was initially delayed due to COVID-19, which prevented Blanco-Bercial and Maas from traveling to WHOI in April to process samples and transport them back to Bermuda. However, arrangements have been made for a technician at WHOI to process and ship the samples to BIOS in August. Meanwhile, Hannah Gossner, a research technician in Blanco-Bercial and Maas’ lab, is training interns on the image analysis process.

At the same time, the project will also include an educational component, which is currently under development. Noyes is working with Kinkade to develop a 6-day workshop, called High Dive Into Data, for high school and community college teachers. The hands-on workshop will include modules that allow educators to explore big data and facilitate the utilization of valuable real-world data in the classroom. All materials developed for the workshop will be available on a web portal, making them accessible to teachers around the world.

“This is a great opportunity to make good use of samples that are available on the shelf, and take advantage of previously NSF funded research,” said Blanco-Bercial. “It also allows us to keep moving forward our open-ocean research without the need of spending months at sea, which is proving to be very tricky in the present conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Maas, who is also Blanco-Bercial’s wife, added, “It is also fun because the samples we are analyzing are the ones we collected together on the cruise where we first met each other.”