Phytoplankton can actively diversify their migration strategy in response to turbulent cues
Marine phytoplankton inhabit a dynamic environment where turbulence, together with nutrient and light availability, shapes species fitness, succession and selection1, 2. Many species of phytoplankton are motile and undertake diel vertical migrations to gain access to nutrient-rich deeper layers at night and well-lit surface waters during the day3, 4. Disruption of this migratory strategy by turbulence is considered to be an important cause of the succession between motile and non-motile species when conditions turn turbulent1, 5, 6. However, this classical view neglects the possibility that motile species may actively respond to turbulent cues to avoid layers of strong turbulence7. Here we report that phytoplankton, including raphidophytes and dinoflagellates, can actively diversify their migratory strategy in response to hydrodynamic cues characteristic of overturning by Kolmogorov-scale eddies. Upon experiencing repeated overturning with timescales and statistics representative of ocean turbulence, an upward-swimming population rapidly (5–60 min) splits into two subpopulations, one swimming upward and one swimming downward. Quantitative morphological analysis of the harmful-algal-bloom-forming raphidophyte Heterosigma akashiwo together with a model of cell mechanics revealed that this behaviour was accompanied by a modulation of the cells’ fore–aft asymmetry. The minute magnitude of the required modulation, sufficient to invert the preferential swimming direction of the cells, highlights the advanced level of control that phytoplankton can exert on their migratory behaviour. Together with observations of enhanced cellular stress after overturning and the typically deleterious effects of strong turbulence on motile phytoplankton5, 8, these results point to an active adaptation of H. akashiwo to increase the chance of evading turbulent layers by diversifying the direction of migration within the population, in a manner suggestive of evolutionary bet-hedging. This migratory behaviour relaxes the boundaries between the fluid dynamic niches of motile and non-motile phytoplankton, and highlights that rapid responses to hydrodynamic cues are important survival strategies for phytoplankton in the ocean.