Marine & Environmental Sciences Faculty Articles

Evidence for Seasonal Cycles in Deep‐Sea Fish Abundances: A Great Migration in the Deep SE Atlantic





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Journal of Animal Ecology



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Africa, Connectivity, Deep sea, Fishes, Migration, SE Atlantic Ocean


  1. Animal migrations are of global ecological significance, providing mechanisms for the transport of nutrients and energy between distant locations. In much of the deep sea (> 200 m water depth) the export of nutrients from the surface ocean provides a crucial but seasonally‐variable energy source to seafloor ecosystems. Seasonal faunal migrations have been hypothesised to occur on the deep seafloor as a result, but have not been documented.
  2. Here, we analyse a 7.5‐year record of photographic data from the DELOS seafloor observatories to determine whether there was evidence of seasonal (intra‐annual) migratory behaviours in a deep‐sea fish assemblage on the West African margin and, if so, identify potential cues for the behaviour.
  3. Our findings demonstrate a correlation between intra‐annual changes in demersal fish abundance at 1400 m depth and satellite‐derived estimates of primary production off the coast of Angola. Highest fish abundances were observed in late November with a smaller peak in June, occurring approximately four months after corresponding peaks in primary production.
  4. Observed changes in fish abundance occurred too rapidly to be explained by recruitment or mortality, and must therefore have a behavioural driver. Given the recurrent patterns observed, and the established importance of bottom‐up trophic structuring in deep‐sea ecosystems, we hypothesize that a large fraction of the fish assemblage may conduct seasonal migrations in this region, and propose seasonal variability in surface ocean primary production as a plausible cause. Such trophic control could lead to changes in the abundance of fishes across the seafloor by affecting secondary production of prey species and/or carrion availability for example.
  5. In summary, we present the first evidence for seasonally‐recurring patterns in deep‐sea demersal fish abundances over a seven‐year period, and demonstrate a previously unobserved level of dynamism in the deep sea, potentially mirroring the great migrations so well characterized in terrestrial systems.



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UK Natural Environment Research Council funding #: (CLASS; NE/RO15953/1)

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