Putting plankton on the map

15 July 2011

Maayke Stomp and Jef Huisman of the University of Amsterdam and colleagues at Michigan State University have been the first to map phytoplankton biodiversity across the USA. Data from 540 lakes show a decrease of phytoplankton biodiversity with increasing latitude and altitude, thus confirming that aquatic microorganisms can show substantial geographical variation in biodiversity. The work is published in Ecology and highlighted as Editors’ Choice in Science.

Maayke Stomp and Jef Huisman of the University of Amsterdam and colleagues at Michigan State University have been the first to map phytoplankton biodiversity across the USA. Data from 540 lakes show a decrease of phytoplankton biodiversity with increasing latitude and altitude, thus confirming that aquatic microorganisms can show substantial geographical variation in biodiversity. The work has been published in Ecology and highlighted as Editors’ Choice in Science.

Our planet shows a striking increase in the species richness of plants and animals from the poles to the tropics. However, it has long been argued that this global biodiversity pattern does not apply to microorganisms, because their small size, fast growth and long-range dispersal would smooth out any diversity gradients. This classic idea has now been shattered by recent results of Maayke Stomp and Jef Huisman of the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) and their American colleagues. Using data on the phytoplankton species composition of 540 lakes, gathered by the US Environmental Protection Agency, they demonstrate strong geographical variation in the biodiversity of these aquatic microorganisms across the USA.

Detailed analysis using structural equation models revealed that the phytoplankton species richness of lakes is largely driven by local environmental factors such as lake productivity (which depends on the availability of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus) and water temperature. In turn, these local environmental factors show substantial geographical variation (for instance, water temperature decreases with latitude and altitude). These results imply that changes in land use or climate that affect the local environmental conditions in lakes are likely to cause major shifts in large-scale biodiversity patterns of aquatic microorganisms.

Published by  IBED