The lowly krill averages only about two inches in length, but it represents a giant-sized link in the global food chain. These small, shrimp-like crustaceans are essentially the fuel that runs the engine of the Earth’s marine ecosystems.
Role in the Food Chain
Krill feed on phytoplankton, microscopic, single-celled plants that drift near the ocean’s surface and live off carbon dioxide and the sun’s rays. They in turn are the main staple in the diets of literally hundreds of different animals, from fish, to birds, to baleen whales.
Simply put, many oceanic life forms depend on krill.
Importance to the Antarctic Ecosystem
Pink and opaque, Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) are among the largest of the 85 known krill species. Their estimated numbers range from 125 million tons to 6 billion tons in the waters around Antarctica. During certain times of year, krill congregate in swarms so dense and widespread that they can be seen from space.
Antarctic krill can live up to 10 years, an amazing longevity for such a heavily hunted creature. They spend their days avoiding predators in the cold depths of the Antarctic Ocean, some 320 feet below the surface. During the night, they drift up the water column toward the surface in search of phytoplankton.
Alarmingly, there are recent studies that show Antarctic krill stocks may have dropped by 80 percent since the 1970s. Scientists attribute these declines in part to ice cover loss caused by global warming. This ice loss removes a primary source of food for krill: ice-algae.