The Peril of the Plankton

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



The pelagic environment is characterized by unevenly distributed resources and risks. Such unpredictability presents adaptive challenges to diverse planktonic organisms including the larvae of benthic marine invertebrates. Estimates of mortality during planktonic development are highly variable, ranging from 0% to 100% per day. Predation is considered a significant source of this mortality, but what explains the variability in estimates of the mortality of marine invertebrate larvae? While differential exposure of larval prey to predators may explain these widely variable estimates, adaptations that reduce vulnerability of marine larvae to predators may also be important. Although there are excellent reviews of predation upon larvae and of larval mortality and defenses, nearly 15 years have elapsed since these topics were formally reviewed. Here, we highlight recent advances in understanding the behavioral, chemical, and morphological defenses that larvae possess and assess their effectiveness in reducing the risk of predation. While recent work confirms that larval mortality is generally high, it also demonstrates that larvae can reduce their risk of predation in several ways, including: (1) temporarily escaping the benthos during vulnerable early stages, (2) producing chemical compounds that reduce palatability, (3) possessing morphological defenses such as spines and shells, and (4) exhibiting induced defensive responses whereby larvae can alter their behavior, morphology, and life histories in the presence of predators. Taken together, these studies indicate that marine invertebrate larvae possess a sophisticated suite of defensive phenotypes that have allowed them to persist in the life cycle of benthic invertebrates for eons.