We examined the response of pico-phytoplankton communities sampled at the equatorial, tropical and temperate Central Atlantic Ocean to subsurface underwater solar radiation in order to test the generality of the reported cell mortality for these populations when exposed to high ultra violet radiation (UVR) and photosynthetically active radiation. The natural communities of pico-phytoplankton populations tested experienced high cell mortality when exposed to high solar radiation, despite inhabiting tropical waters. Synechococcus and eukaryotes were more resistant to solar radiation than Prochlorococcus. The decay rates of all pico-phytoplankton groups examined tended to be much higher when exposed to total solar radiation than when UVB-R was filtered out. We also show that even short exposures of 30 min to high solar radiation were able to induce cell mortality in Prochlorococcus. The variability in the decay rates of living Prochlorococcus cells were strongly related to the condition of the original population. However, Synechococcus decay rates were higher in populations from the tropical area, with eukaryotes sensitivity increasing with increasing the trophic degree. The data reported in this study and in the literature revealed contrasting capacities of Prochlorococcus, Synechococcus and eukaryotes to survive under high solar radiation. Although the mechanisms involved are as yet unclear, their elucidation may help explain niche partitioning among these organisms in the ocean.