Turbulence drives microscale patches of motile phytoplankton.
Durham WM., Climent E., Barry M., De Lillo F., Boffetta G., Cencini M., Stocker R.
Patchiness plays a fundamental role in phytoplankton ecology by dictating the rate at which individual cells encounter each other and their predators. The distribution of motile phytoplankton species is often considerably more patchy than that of non-motile species at submetre length scales, yet the mechanism generating this patchiness has remained unknown. Here we show that strong patchiness at small scales occurs when motile phytoplankton are exposed to turbulent flow. We demonstrate experimentally that Heterosigma akashiwo forms striking patches within individual vortices and prove with a mathematical model that this patchiness results from the coupling between motility and shear. When implemented within a direct numerical simulation of turbulence, the model reveals that cell motility can prevail over turbulent dispersion to create strong fractal patchiness, where local phytoplankton concentrations are increased more than 10-fold. This 'unmixing' mechanism likely enhances ecological interactions in the plankton and offers mechanistic insights into how turbulence intensity impacts ecosystem productivity.