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Living Marine Ecosystems

The ocean supports a great diversity of life. It provides most of the living space on Earth with many different habitats from its surface through the water column to the sea floor. These different habitats are defined by environmental factors such as salinity, temperature, oxygen, acidity (pH), light, nutrients, pressure, substrate and circulation patterns.

Life in the ocean ranges from the smallest virus to the largest animal on Earth, the Blue Whale. Microbes are the most common form of life found in the ocean. They form the basis of many food chains (as important primary producers).

Ocean life is "patchy" and not evenly distibuted over time and space. Some regions of the ocean support very diverse and abundant life. Coral reefs are considered the "rainforests of the ocean" with very high levels of biodiversity. Estuaries, wetlands and seagrass along the coast also support abundant life. They provide important and productive nurseries. However, much of the open and deep ocean is considered a desert.

There are deep ocean ecosystems that are independent of the sun's energy. Sunlight is unable to penetrate to deep layers of the ocean, and photosynthesis is impossible. Life in hydrothermal vents, submarine hot springs, methane cold seeps, and whale falls in the deep ocean often relies on chemical energy produced by bacteria (i.e. chemosynthesis).

Additional resources:
Smithsonian Ocean Portal:
National Geographic: http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/

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