The Ocean as a Biological Environment

The oceans hold the answers to many important questions about the development of the earth and the history of life on earth. For instance, within the rocks and sediment of the ocean floors the geological history of the earth is recorded. Fossils in this sediment record a portion of the biological history of the earth at least back to the Jurassic period, which ended about 140,000,000 years ago. The first appearance of life on the earth is thought to have occurred in the oceans 2 or 3 billion years ago. The modern marine environment is divided into two major realms, the benthic and the pelagic, based upon the ecological characteristics and marine life associated with them. See also marine biology.

The benthic realm refers to the floor of the oceans, extending from the high tide line to the greatest ocean depths. The organisms that live in or on the bottom are called benthos. The benthic realm is subdivided on the basis of depth into the littoral zone, which extends from high tide to a depth of about 200 m (660 ft), and the deep-sea realm. The benthic life forms are both sessile (attached) and motile (mobile). They are distributed from near-shore littoral regions to the ocean depths and play an important role in the food chain. Some benthic life forms live by predation, others sift organic matter from the water, and others scavenge the bottom for organic debris that has settled there. Benthic plants can live only in the euphotic zone, the uppermost 100–200 m (330–660 ft) of the ocean, where sunlight penetrates. Benthic animals that live below the euphotic zone often must depend on the rain of organic debris from above to supply their food needs, and thus the deep regions of the benthic realm are not highly populated except in the areas around hydrothermal vents where chemosynthesis provides an alternative food source.

The pelagic realm consists of all of the ocean water covering the benthic realm. It is divided horizontally into the neritic, or fertile near-shore, province and the oceanic province. Vertically it is divided into the euphotic, or photic, zone and the aphotic (without sunlight) zone. Drifting, free-floating organisms, called plankton, and organisms with poor mobile ability populate the euphotic zone. Most plankton are microscopic or near-microscopic in size. Phytoplankton are photosynthetic bacteria (cyanbacteria) and floating algae, such as diatoms, dinoflagellates, and coccolithopores. Heterotrophic plankton (zooplankton) are floating animals and protozoans of the sea and rely on the phytoplankton as food sources. Foraminifera and radiolaria are the dominant protozoan zooplankton that secrete tests (shells), which become incorporated into the sediment of the ocean floor. Many juvenile forms of swimmers (such as shrimp) or bottom dwellers (such as barnacles) pass through a planktonic phase. Marine organisms capable of self-locomotion are called nektonic life forms. Fish, squid, and whales are examples of marine nekton.

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