Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


Kam W. Tang


Mesozooplankton function as microbial microhabitats and can support concentrations of bacteria orders of magnitude higher than in the surrounding water. These zooplankton-associated bacteria can have much higher production rates than their free-living counterparts. Portions of the zooplankton microhabitat may also be anoxic and provide refuge for anaerobic bacteria and their associated processes within the oxygenated water column. Despite their common presence in the marine environment, zooplankton-associated bacteria are largely ignored by microbial ecologists and zooplankton ecologists alike. Consequently, factors which influence zooplanktonassociated bacterial abundance, community composition and function, and how zooplankton-associated bacteria compare to free-living bacteria are not well known. The goal of my research was to investigate which environmental parameters and zooplanktonspecific characteristics influenced the zooplankton-associated bacterial abundance, community composition and function. During a year-long field study in the York River, VA, free-living bacteria concentration peaked in the summer, while zooplanktonassociated bacteria concentration peaked in both summer and winter. There were no relationships between number of bacteria per individual zooplankter and zooplankter size. Ambient ammonium concentration was the one environmental parameter that correlated with all zooplankton-associated bacterial concentrations. In laboratory experiments, copepods raised in high ammonium concentration had high concentrations of loosely attached bacteria, while copepods raised in low ammonium concentration supported fewer, firmly attached bacteria, suggesting greater exchange between free-living and zooplankton-associated bacterial communities in nutrient rich systems. Zooplankton-associated bacterial communities were genetically distinct from free-living bacterial communities and utilized a wider array of carbon substrates. Changes in ambient environmental conditions played a larger role than zooplankton-characteristics in shaping zooplankton-associated bacterial community composition and function. Additionally, the potential importance of zooplankton guts as anoxic microhabitats was evaluated by comparing carbon substrate usage by the total bacterial (epibiotic + gut) and gut bacterial communities of the calanoid copepod Acartia tonsa under aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Gut bacteria were responsible for a large portion of the microbial activity associated with the copepod under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. A larger variety of substrate subsets were used by zooplankton-associated bacteria than free-living bacteria under anaerobic conditions, suggesting that each zooplankton group selects for a specific combination of bacteria. In fact, some zooplankton-associated bacteria were not detected in the surrounding water and utilized substrates not used by free-living bacteria. These results highlight that zooplankton act as micro bial hotspots and zooplankton-associated bacteria are an important part of the total bacterial abundance, diversity and functionality in aquatic systems.



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