The structure of the planktonic food-web in the St. Lawrence Great Lakes

Gary L. Fahnenstiel, Ann E. Krause, Michael J. McCormick, Hunter J. Carrick, Claire L. Schelske

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The structure of the planktonic food-web was studied during the spring (April/May) and summer (August) periods in 1993 to 1995 at twelve stations located in the offshore region of all five Great Lakes. All components of the planktonic food-web were collected from the same water sample (with the exception of crustaceans), counted microscopically, converted to carbon units, and averaged over the euphotic zone. Due to phosphorus load reductions and the impact of non-indigenous mussels in the lower lakes, physical/chemical characteristics of the lower lakes are becoming similar to those in the upper lakes. Spring total phosphorus and euphotic zone depth were relatively similar among all the stations (except western Lake Erie), ranging from 3 to 7 μ/g/L and 21 to 26 m, respectively. During the summer, total phosphorus concentrations were more variable, but ranged between 4 to 10 μg/L at all stations except western Lake Erie. Planktonic biomass was correlated with total phosphorus concentration. Within a season, the structure of the planktonic food-web was remarkably similar among all stations across all the lakes. Of the seventeen food-web structure parameters examined, only two exhibited significant differences-among stations during the spring isothermal period; only four parameters exhibited significant differences among stations during the summer. Small plankton were very abundant in all the lakes. Picoplankton (0.2 to 2.0 μn) biomass was approximately equal to the combined biomass of nanno- and microplankton (2 to 200 μn). For microorganisms (all organisms except crustaceans) autotrophic: heterotrophic ratios averaged 1.3 (spring = 1.1, summer = 1.5). The heterotrophic microorganism community was comprised of bacteria (mean = 65%), protozoans (mean = 32%), and rotifers (3%). Even though zebra mussel veligers were found-in all the lakes except Lake Superior, their contribution to microorganism biomass never exceeded 1%. Due to seasonal variation in crustacean abundance, the mean contribution of major functional groups varied by season; producers (autotrophs), decomposers (bacteria), micrograzers (protozoans and rotifers), and mesograzers ('crustaceans) constituted 40%, 30%, 11%, and 19% of total planktonic carbon, respectively, during the spring, and 32%, 15%, 9%, and 43%, respectively, during the summer. The overall similarity in the structure of the planktonic food-web across all stations in the Great Lakes was attributed to the strong influence of abiotic factors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)531-554
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Great Lakes Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1998


  • Autotrophic
  • Great Lakes
  • Heterotrophic
  • Microorganisms
  • Picoplankton
  • Planktonic food-web


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