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Phytoplankton: below the salt at the global table

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 May 2016

Helen Tappan*
Department of Earth and Space Sciences and Center for the Study of Evolution and Origin of Life, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles 90024


The abundance and diversity of marine phytoplankton and the geologic timing of its major innovations and extinctions show a broad but inverse relationship to stages of terrestrial plant evolution. Successively, the first appearance of land plants, and the later major increases in global live terrestrial biomass and dead biomass in the form of plant litter, peat, coal, and soil humus, increased the retention on land of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, and decreased the amount of these nutrients that was transported by rivers to the seas. Each major increase in terrestrial nutrient retention resulted in extensive changes in the marine ecosystem, as it adapted to the new conditions. From its time of origin in the early Paleozoic, the terrestrial biota figuratively occupied the position at the head of the table, and only the unutilized nutrient excess trickled down to the oceanic phytoplankton and its dependent food web.

Research Article
Copyright © The Paleontological Society 

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