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12.14: Aquatic Biomes

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    Is there life deep in the ocean?

    Yes, there is life even at great depths in the ocean. One example of deep ocean life is this deep-sea chimaera. Chimaeras are related to sharks and resemble them somewhat. But most chimaeras are adapted for life thousands of feet under the ocean surface. This is one example of an organism that lives in an aquatic biome.

    Aquatic Biomes

    Recall that terrestrial biomes are defined by their climate. That's because plants and animals are adapted for certain amounts of temperature and moisture. However, would aquatic biomes be classified in the same way? No, that wouldn't make much sense—all parts of an aquatic environment have plenty of water. Aquatic biomes can be generally classified based on the amount of salt in the water. Freshwater biomes have less than 1% salt and are typical of ponds and lakesstreams and rivers, and wetlands. Marine biomes have more salt and are characteristic of the oceans, coral reefs, and estuaries.

    Most aquatic organisms do not have to deal with extremes of temperature or moisture. Instead, their main limiting factors are the availability of sunlight and the concentration of dissolved oxygen and nutrients in the water.

    Marine Biomes

    Aquatic biomes in the ocean are called marine biomes. Organisms that live in marine biomes must be adapted to the salt in the water. For example, many have organs for excreting excess salt. Marine biomes include the oceans, coral reefs, and estuaries (Figure below). The oceans are the largest of all the ecosystems. They can be divided into four separate zones based on the amount of sunlight. Ocean zones are also divided based on their depth and their distance from land. Each zone has a great diversity of species. Within a coral reef, the dominant organisms are corals. Corals consist partially of algae, which provide nutrients via photosynthesis. Corals also extend tentacles to obtain plankton from the water. Coral reefs include several species of microorganisms, invertebrates, fishes, sea urchins, octopuses, and sea stars. Estuaries are areas where freshwater streams or rivers merge with the ocean.

    A kelp forest is an example of a marine biome
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): An example of a marine biome, a kelp forest, from Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

    Freshwater Biomes

    Freshwater biomes are defined by their low salt concentration, usually less than 1%. Plants and animals in freshwater regions are adjusted to the low salt content and would not be able to survive in areas of high salt concentration, such as the ocean. There are different types of freshwater biomes: ponds and lakes (Figure below), streams and rivers, and wetlands. Ponds and lakes range in size from just a few square meters to thousands of square kilometers. Streams and rivers are bodies of flowing water moving in one direction. They can be found everywhere. They get their starts at headwaters, which may be springsmelting snow, or even lakes, and then travel all the way to their mouths, emptying into another water channel or the ocean. Wetlands are areas of standing water that support aquatic plants. Wetlands include marshes, swamps, and bogs.

    Lake Tahoe in Northern California is a freshwater biome
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Lake Tahoe in Northern California is a freshwater biome.

    Aquatic Biomes and Sunlight

    In large bodies of water, such as the ocean and lakes, the water can be divided into zones based on the amount of sunlight it receives:

    1. The photic zone extends to a maximum depth of 200 meters (656 feet) below the surface of the water. This is where enough sunlight penetrates for photosynthesis to occur. Algae and other photosynthetic organisms can make food and support food webs.
    2. The aphotic zone is water deeper than 200 meters. This is where too little sunlight penetrates for photosynthesis to occur. As a result, producers must make "food" by chemosynthesis, or the food must drift down from the water above.

    Aquatic Biomes and Dissolved Substances

    Water in lakes and the ocean also varies in the amount of dissolved oxygen and nutrients it contains:

    1. Water near the surface of lakes and the ocean usually has more dissolved oxygen than does deeper water. This is because surface water absorbs oxygen from the air above it.
    2. Water near shore generally has more dissolved nutrients than water farther from shore. This is because most nutrients enter the water from land. They are carried by runoff, streams, and rivers that empty into a body of water.
    3. Water near the bottom of lakes and the ocean may contain more nutrients than water closer to the surface. When aquatic organisms die, they sink to the bottom. Decomposers near the bottom of the water break down the dead organisms and release their nutrients back into the water.


    • Aquatic biomes are distinguished by the availability of sunlight and the concentration of dissolved oxygen and nutrients in the water.
    • The photic zone extends to a maximum depth of 200 meters, while the aphotic zone is deeper than 200 meters.
    • Aquatic biomes in the ocean are called marine biomes.

    Explore More

    Use the resources below to answer the questions that follow.

    Explore More I

    1. What factors determine the distribution of life in lakes?
    2. What is a main entry point for nutrients in the littoral zone in lakes? How does this affect the biomass of this zone? How does it affect the species diversity?

    Explore More II

    1. What effect do wetlands have on water quality? How does this work?
    2. What is an estuary? How and why does the salinity of estuaries vary?


    1. Aquatic biomes are defined by what factor(s)?
    2. Distinguish between freshwater and marine biomes.
    3. How do producers in the aphotic zone differ from those in the photic zone?

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