Biological clocks are a ubiquitous ancient and adaptive mechanism enabling organisms to anticipate environmental cycles and to regulate behavioral and physiological processes accordingly. Although terrestrial circadian clocks are well understood, knowledge of clocks in marine organisms is still very limited. This is particularly true for abundant species displaying large-scale rhythms like diel vertical migration (DVM) that contribute significantly to shaping their respective ecosystems.
Here we describe exogenous cycles and endogenous rhythms associated with DVM of the ecologically important and highly abundant planktic copepod Calanus finmarchicus. In the laboratory, C. finmarchicus shows circadian rhythms of DVM, metabolism, and most core circadian clock genes (clock, period1, period2, timeless, cryptochrome2, and clockwork orange). Most of these genes also cycle in animals assessed in the wild, though expression is less rhythmic at depth (50–140 m) relative to shallow-caught animals (0–50 m). Further, peak expressions of clock genes generally occurred at either sunset or sunrise, coinciding with peak migration times.
Including one of the first field investigations of clock genes in a marine species, this study couples clock gene measurements with laboratory and field data on DVM. While the mechanistic connection remains elusive, our results imply a high degree of causality between clock gene expression and one of the planet’s largest daily migrations of biomass. We thus suggest that circadian clocks increase zooplankton fitness by optimizing the temporal trade-off between feeding and predator avoidance, especially when environmental drivers are weak or absent.