Any water in a sea or lake that is neither close to the bottom nor near the shore can be said to be in the pelagic zone. The word "pelagic" is derived from Greek πέλαγος (pélagos), meaning "open sea". The pelagic zone can be thought of in terms of an imaginary cylinder or water column that goes from the surface of the sea almost to the bottom. Conditions differ deeper in the water column; the pressure increases, the temperature drops and less light penetrates. Depending on the depth, the water column, rather like the Earth's atmosphere, can be divided into different layers.
The pelagic zone occupies 1,330 million km3 (320 million mi3) with a mean depth of 3.68 km (2.29 mi) and maximum depth of 11 km (6.8 mi). Fish that live in the pelagic zone are called pelagic fish. Pelagic life decreases with increasing depth. It is affected by light intensity, pressure, temperature, salinity, the supply of dissolved oxygen and nutrients, and the submarine topography, which is called bathymetry. In deep water, the pelagic zone is sometimes called the open-ocean zone and can be contrasted with water that is near the coast or on the continental shelf. In other contexts, coastal water not near the bottom is still said to be in the pelagic zone.
The pelagic zone can be contrasted with the benthic and demersal zones at the bottom of the sea. The benthic zone is the ecological region at the very bottom of the sea. It includes the sediment surface and some subsurface layers. Marine organisms living in this zone, such as clams and crabs, are called benthos. The demersal zone is just above the benthic zone. It can be significantly affected by the seabed and the life that lives there. Fish that live in the demersal zone are called demersal fish, which can be divided into benthic fish, which are denser than water so they can rest on the bottom, and benthopelagic fish, which swim in the water column just above the bottom. Demersal fish are also known as bottom feeders and groundfish.
Depth and layers
Depending on how deep the sea is, the pelagic zone can extend over up to five horizontal layers in the ocean. From the top down, these are:
From the surface (MSL) down to around 200 m (660 ft)
This is the illuminated zone at the surface of the sea where enough light is available for photosynthesis. Nearly all primary production in the ocean occurs here. Consequently, plants and animals are largely concentrated in this zone. Examples of organisms living in this zone are plankton, floating seaweed, jellyfish, tuna, many sharks and dolphins.
From 200 m (660 ft) down to around 1,000 m (3,300 ft)
The name for this zone stems from Greek μέσον (meson), meaning "middle". Although some light penetrates this second layer it is insufficient for photosynthesis. At about 500 m the water also becomes depleted of oxygen. Organisms survive this environment by having more efficient gills or by minimizing movement.
Examples of animals that live here are swordfish, squid, wolffish and some species of cuttlefish. Many organisms that live in this zone are bioluminescent. Some creatures living in the mesopelagic zone rise to the epipelagic zone at night to feed.
From 1,000 m (3,300 ft) down to around 4,000 m (13,000 ft)
The name stems from Greek βαθύς (bathýs), meaning "deep". At this depth, the ocean is pitch black, apart from occasional bioluminescent organisms, such as lanternfish. No living plant life exists here. Most animals living here survive by consuming the detritus falling from the zones above, which is known as "marine snow", or, like the marine hatchetfish, by preying on other inhabitants of this zone. Other examples of this zone's inhabitants are giant squid, smaller squids and the dumbo octopus. The giant squid is hunted here by deep-diving sperm whales.
Abyssopelagic (lower midnight)
From around 4,000 m (13,000 ft) down to above the ocean floor
The name is derived from Greek ἄβυσσος (ábyssos), meaning "bottomless" (a holdover from the times when the deep ocean, or abyss, was believed to be bottomless). Very few creatures live in the cold temperatures, high pressures and complete darkness of this depth. Among the species found in this zone are several species of squid; echinoderms including the basket star, swimming cucumber, and the sea pig; and marine arthropods including the sea spider. Many of the species living at these depths are transparent and eyeless because of the total lack of light in this zone.
The deep water in ocean trenches
The name is derived from the realm of Hades, the underworld in Greek mythology. This zone is mostly unknown, and very few species are known to live here (in the open areas). However, many organisms live in hydrothermal vents in this and other zones. Some define the hadopelagic as waters below 6,000 m (20,000 ft), whether in a trench or not. The bathypelagic, abyssopelagic, and hadopelagic zones are very similar in character, and some marine biologists combine them into a single zone or consider the latter two to be the same. The abyssal plain is covered with soft sludge composed of dead organisms from above.
The pelagic ecosystem is based on the phytoplankton which occupy the start of the foodchain. Phytoplankton manufacture their own food using a process of photosynthesis. Because they need sunlight, they inhabit the upper, sunlit epipelagic zone, which includes the coastal or neritic zone. Biodiversity diminishes markedly in the deeper zones below the epipelagic zone as dissolved oxygen diminishes, water pressure increases, temperatures become colder, food sources become scarce, and light diminishes and finally disappears.
Pelagic birds, also called oceanic birds, live on the open sea, rather than around waters adjacent to land or around inland waters. Pelagic birds feed on planktonic crustaceans, squid and forage fish. Examples are the Atlantic puffin, macaroni penguins, sooty terns, shearwaters, and procellariiforms such as the albatross, procellariids and petrels.
The term seabird includes birds which live around the sea adjacent to land, as well as pelagic birds.
Pelagic fish live in the water column of coastal, ocean, and lake waters, but not on or near the bottom of the sea or the lake. They can be contrasted with demersal fish, which live on or near the bottom, and reef fish, which are associated with coral reefs.
These fish are often migratory forage fish, which feed on plankton, and the larger fish that follow and feed on the forage fish. Examples of migratory forage fish are herring, anchovies, capelin, and menhaden. Examples of larger pelagic fish which prey on the forage fish are billfish, tuna, and oceanic sharks.
Thorson's rule states that benthic marine invertebrates at low latitudes tend to produce large numbers of eggs developing to widely-dispersing pelagic larvae, whereas at high latitudes such organisms tend to produce fewer and larger lecithotrophic (yolk-feeding) eggs and larger offspring.
Pelamis platura, the pelagic sea snake, is the only one of the 65 species of marine snakes to spend its entire life in the pelagic zone. It bears live young at sea and is helpless on land. The species sometimes forms aggregations of thousands along slicks in surface waters. The pelagic sea snake is the world’s most widely distributed snake species.
Many species of sea turtles spend the first years of their lives in the pelagic zone, moving closer to shore as they reach maturity.
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