What Is a Benthic Zone?
The benthic zone refers to freshwater, brackish, and saltwater environments. Depending on the water body, the benthic zone may include areas that are only a few inches below water, such as a stream or shallow pond, or may be at the bottom of an ocean below a 4,000 meter (13,000 foot) column of water.
Benthic habitats are very diverse, depending upon their depth and location and have distinct biological, physical, and geochemical characteristics (CSC 2008). The superficial layer of the soil lining the given body of water is an integral part of the benthic zone, as it influences greatly the biological activity that takes place there. Examples of contact soil layers include sand bottoms, rocky outcrops, coral, and bay mud.
Organisms living in this zone are called benthos, e.g. the benthic invertebrate community, including crustaceans and polychaetes. The organisms generally live in close relationship with the substrate bottom and many are permanently attached to the bottom.
The superficial layer of the soil lining the given body of water, the benthic boundary layer, is an integral part of the benthic zone, as it greatly influences the biological activity that takes place there. Examples of contact soil layers include sand bottoms, rocky outcrops, coral, and bay mud.
The benthic region of the ocean begins at the shore line (intertidal or eulittoral zone) and extends downward along the surface of the continental shelf out to sea. The continental shelf is a gently sloping benthic region that extends away from the land mass. At the continental shelf edge, usually about 200 meters deep, the gradient greatly increases and is known as the continental slope.
The continental slope drops down to the deep sea floor. The deep-sea floor is called the abyssal plain and is usually about 4,000 meters deep. The ocean floor is not all flat but has submarine ridges and deep ocean trenches known as the hadal zone. For comparison, the pelagic zone is the descriptive term for the ecological region above the benthos, including the water-column up to the surface.
As light does not penetrate very deep into ocean-water; the energy source for the benthic ecosystem is often organic matter from higher up in the water column that drifts down to the depths. This dead and decaying matter sustains the benthic food chain; most organisms in the benthic zone are scavengers or detritivores. Some microorganisms use chemosynthesis to produce biomass.
Benthic organisms can be divided into two categories based on whether they make their home on the ocean floor or an inch or two into the ocean floor. Those living on the surface of the ocean floor are known as epifauna. Those who live burrowed into the ocean floor are known as infauna. Extremophiles, including piezophiles, which thrive in high pressures, may also live there.
Sources of food for benthic communities can derive from the water column above these habitats in the form of aggregations of detritus, inorganic matter, and living organisms. These aggregations are commonly referred to as marine snow, and are important for the deposition of organic matter, and bacterial communities.
The amount of material sinking to the ocean floor can average 307,000 aggregates per m2 per day. This amount will vary on the depth of the benthos, and the degree of benthic-pelagic coupling. The benthos in a shallow region will have more available food than the benthos in the deep sea. Because of their reliance on it, microbes may become spatially dependent on detritus in the benthic zone. The microbes found in the benthic zone, specifically dinoflagellates and foraminifera, colonize quite rapidly on detritus matter while forming a symbiotic relationship with each other.
Modern seafloor mapping technologies have revealed linkages between seafloor geomorphology and benthic habitats, in which suites of benthic communities are associated with specific geomorphic settings. Examples include cold-water coral communities associated with seamounts and submarine canyons, kelp forests associated with inner shelf rocky reefs and rockfish associated with rocky escarpments on continental slopes.
In oceanic environments, benthic habitats can also be zoned by depth. From the shallowest to the deepest are: the epipelagic (less than 200 meters), the mesopelagic (200–1,000 metres), the bathyal (1,000–4,000 meters), the abyssal (4,000–6,000 meters) and the deepest, the hadal (below 6,000 meters).
The lower zones are in deep, pressurized areas of the ocean. Human impacts have occurred at all ocean depths, but are most significant on shallow continental shelf and slope habitats. Many benthic organisms have retained their historic evolutionary characteristics. Some organisms are significantly larger than their relatives living in shallower zones, largely because of higher oxygen concentration in deep water.
It is not easy to map or observe these organisms and their habitats, and most modern observations are made using remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), and rarely submarines.