Marine Plants Capable of Avoiding Predators

Written by on October 3, 2012 in Marine Life
Heterosigma akashiwo. Photo credit: Brian Bill, NWFSC/NOAA.

Heterosigma akashiwo. Photo credit: Brian Bill, NWFSC/NOAA.

Researchers from the University of Rhode Island (URI)’s Graduate School of Oceanography have made the first observation of marine plants avoiding predators.

Phytoplankton, microscopic marine plants, are known to control their movements–they move towards light and nutrients–but this predator avoidance behavior is completely new.

“We don’t know of any other plants that do this,” said Susanne Menden-Deuer, associate professor of oceanography at URI.

While studying the interactions between phytoplankton and zooplankton, the researchers found that a specific type of phytoplankton behaved differently in the presence of predators.  Groups of Heterosigma akashiwo would not only shift away from the predators, but would also flee when put in water that had previously contained predators.  They reacted only minimally when in the presence of predators that do not feed on phytoplankton.

“The phytoplankton can clearly sense the predator is there.  They flee even from the chemical scent of the predator but are most agitated when sensing a feeding predator,” said Menden-Deuer.

The researchers found that if they provided a refuge for the phytoplankton, (like a low-salinity area that the predator could not tolerate) the phytoplankton would move to that area.

They noted that there is no way to know how common this behavior is among other species of phytoplankton.  But Menden-Deuer said she “wouldn’t be surprised if other species had that capacity.  It would be very beneficial to them.”

To learn more:

Heterosigma akashiwo, capable of forming harmful algal blooms. Photo credit: Gabriela Hannach, NOAA.

Heterosigma akashiwo, capable of forming harmful algal blooms. Photo credit: Gabriela Hannach, NOAA.

Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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