The fecal iron pump: Global impact of animals on the iron stoichiometry of marine sinking particles

Priscilla K. Le Mézo*, Eric D. Galbraith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


The impact of marine animals on the iron (Fe) cycle has mostly been considered in terms of their role in supplying dissolved Fe to phytoplankton at the ocean surface. However, little attention has been paid to how the transformation of ingested food into fecal matter by animals alters the relative Fe-richness of particles, which could have consequences for Fe cycling in the water column and for the food quality of suspended and sinking particles. Here, we compile observations to show that the Fe to carbon (C) ratio (Fe:C) of fecal pellets of various marine animals is consistently enriched compared to their food, often by more than an order of magnitude. We explain this consistent enrichment by the low assimilation rates that have been measured for Fe in animals, together with the respiratory conversion of dietary organic C to excreted dissolved inorganic C. Furthermore, we calculate that this enrichment should cause animal fecal matter to constitute a major fraction of the global sinking flux of biogenic Fe, a component of the marine iron cycle that has been previously unappreciated. We also estimate that this fecal iron pump provides an important source of Fe to marine animals via coprophagy, particularly in the mesopelagic, given that fecal matter Fe:C can be many-fold higher than the Fe:C of local phytoplankton. Our results imply that the fecal iron pump is important both for global Fe cycling and for the iron nutrition of pelagic and mesopelagic communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-213
Number of pages13
JournalLimnology and Oceanography
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


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