• Key index words: benthic microalgae;
  • chlorophyll a fluorescence;
  • Euglena granulata;
  • intertidal areas;
  • microphy-tobenthos;
  • Phaeodactylum tricornutum;
  • rhythms;
  • sediments;
  • Spirulina maxima;
  • vertical migration


In vivo chlorophyll (Chl) a fluorescence was measured in undisturbed intertidal sediments with the purpose of tracing the vertical migratory rhythms of benthic microalgae. A pulse amplitude fluorometer, an instrument which does not require physical contact with the sample, was used, thus allowing successive measurements to be taken on the same sample without causing any type of disturbance to the sediment structure. The basis of the method is the possibility to detect changes in the Chl a concentration near the sediment surface caused by the vertical movement of the microalgae. This requires the verification of two conditions: the possibility to follow changes in the sediment Chl a content from fluorescence intensity, and a sediment photic depth smaller than the vertical distances covered by the moving microalgae. Both conditions were experimentally verified in intertidal muddy sediments of the Tagus estuary, Portugal. In vivo fluorescence was shown to vary linearly with the sediment Chl a content, and the sediment photic depth was estimated to reach 0.27 mm, a value clearly smaller than the reported depths for microalgal migrations. Sediment samples kept under in situ conditions exhibited large hourly Variations (over 400%) in the Chl a fluorescence intensity, which were closely synchronized with the daytime periods of emersion. The rhythmic fluctuations in Chl a fluorescence were confirmed further to represent microalgal migration by (1) its endogenous nature (fluorescence continued to follow diurnal and tidal cycles after removal of environmental stimuli), (2) its dependence on the vertical distribution of the microalgal population within the sediment (vertically homogenized samples failed to display fluorescence variations), and (3) the lack of significant temperature and light effects on the fluorescence emission under in situ conditions (tested in three species representative of the main groups found in the studied microphytobenthic communities—the diatom Phaeodactylum tricornutum (Böhlin), the cyanobacterium Spirulina maxima (Setch. et Gard.), and the euglenophyte Euglena granulata (Klebs) Lemm.). The results obtained indicate that, in spite of the potential concurrent effects of factors other than the Chl a concentration on the fluorescence intensity, in vivo Chl a fluorescence can be used to trace nondestructively the migratory behavior of benthic microalgae.