Pelagic Biome

The Pelagic Zone

The word pelagic is derived from the Greek work pélagos, meaning open ocean. It is the name for oceanic water not in direct contact with a shore or the bottom.

It is by far the largest aquatic biome terms of volume, but in comparison to many of the other biomes, it is a desert.

Pelagic sub-zones

The pelagic zone is further divided up into vertical sub-zones as seen in the image below. This biome vertically joins with the Deep Sea biome once the illuminated surface layers are passed. For more information on the deeper pelagic waters, please also visit our deep sea biome page.


Our large Oceans

Seen from space, Earth is truly a water planet. About 71 percent of Earth’s surface is water, and the average depth of the oceans is just under 4,000 meters (about 13,000ft.) Life on the planet has a few basic requirements to survive. We need energy of some kind, and to most animals that mean that they will have to eat. To get food, an animal has to be where there is food, or be able to go where there is food. The same goes with reproduction. Many marine organisms reproduce sexually and need to find a mate to reproduce.

Most other biomes are in close proximity to land of some kind which usually helps in both these cases, but the pelagic zone is simply defined as waters that are not directly connected to land in any direction, neither horizontally nor vertically. So organisms living in the pelagic zone  must go where there is food and locate a partner to reproduce.

In the aquatic world, the clear blue pelagic waters are somewhat of a water-desert. The biomass out here is much lower than many coastal waters per unit volume, but there is still a lot of organisms that live here.

A lot of the marine fish we eat come from pelagic fisheries. Some commercially important species of fish are Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, Pacific sardine and Blue-fin tuna. Unfortunately today, many fish stocks have been over-exploited and some species, such as many shark species, even face extinction due to overfishing. On top of this, many pelagic animals that are not targeted by the fishing boats, such as dolphins and turtles, sometimes also get affected by negative fishing methods.

The different pelagic sub-zones

Epipelagic – The Illuminated Surface zone

[Origin of the word: Gr. Epi – ‘near to, upon’]

The epipelagic zone stretches from the surface down to the depth where photosynthesis can no longer occur because of the limited light, generally about 200 meters. Since light is absorbed quickly with depth, only a small percentage of the sunlight ever reaches this far down.

Since sunlight is needed for photosynthesis, nearly all primary production of the ocean occurs here. In fact, a great percentage of the oxygen in the atmosphere comes from the primary production out in the open oceans! As a result of this, the epipelagic zone is also where most pelagic animals are found, and they are often big. Tunas, sharks and large marine mammals such as whales and dolphins travel in these waters. We also find planktonic jellyfish and comb jellies.

The photosynthetic organisms here are dominated by phytolankton, diatoms and dinoflagellates that have evolved specialized features to stay in the surface waters and not sink such as air bubbles or small droplets of special oils. Some also have spines that increase their surface area and slows down sink rate.

Clear, well-lit open water is also a dangerous place to be in for many organisms when such large predators are around. For this reason many small animals only come up to the epipelagic zone at night and spend the sunlit hours deeper.

A camouflage coloration found on many animals that live in the open ocean is counter-coloration: light-colored undersides and darker backs. Seen from above, a dark back blends in better with the darkness of the depth, but a light colored belly will blend in better with the bright surface when seen from below.

General depth range of the Epipelagic Zone: 0 – 200 meters

Mesopelagic – The Twilight Zone

[Origin of the word: Gr. Meso – ‘middle’]

In the mesopelagic zone there is no longer enough light for photosynthesis. The light that does penetrate can provides enough light for hunting if you have good eyes. Many animals do vertical migrations down to the mesopelagic to hide during the day.  With the darkness of night, it is safer again to migrate closer to the surface where there is generally more available food.

Many creatures that live in this zone are also transparent, a good camouflage in this zone where there is barely enough light to see. Some animals here have also developed larger eyes to make best use of the limited light.

In addition to decreased light, oxygen concentrations are also very limited. So organisms that live down here have to be able to survive low oxygen levels as well.

Squids, nautilus shells and swordfish are a few species that can be found down here.

General depth range of the Mesopelagic Zone: 200 – 1000 meters

Bathypelagic – The dark zone

[Origin of the word: Gr. Bathus – ‘deep’]

Below the mesopelagic, no light will ever reach (unless it comes from bioluminescence: organisms that can create their own light).

The bathypelagic zone is defined as the zone that goes down and past the continental slope. The pressure down here is great; only organisms with special adaptations to survive such pressures can live this deep. For example, the swimbladder that we see in many fish at the surface is missing in fish down here. The food source here is limited to the debris of dead material that sinks like snow from the above zones. Staying still to conserve energy is common. Some fish attract prey by going fishing. For example, anglerfish have a small glowing bioluminiscent rod attached to their head. Other fish get attracted to the light and becomes a meal for the anglerfish.

The water temperature stays fairly constant down here between about 2-4 degrees C, (about 35-39 degrees F).

General depth range of the bathypelagic Zone: 1000 – 4000 meters

Abyssopelagic – The “bottomless” zone

[Origin of the word: Gr. abussos – “bottomless” – ‘a’ = without + ‘bussos’ = depth]

This zone is usually where the continental slope levels off. More than 30 percent of the bottom of the ocean is said to be situated here.

General depth range of the Abyssopelagic Zone: 4000 – 6000 meters

Hadopelagic – The “Underworld”

[Origin of the word: Gr. Hades – was the name of the Greek God of the Underworld. Hades is also the word for the Underworld itself. In Greek the word also means ‘unseen’]

Some parts of the ocean floor have deep trenches that can reach several kilometers deeper than the surrounding ocean floor. These zones, which cover less than 2 percent of the ocean bottom,  are referred to as the hadopelagic zones.

A lot of these trenches are still unexplored, and so far only a few species have been observed here. Not many organisms down here would ever survive being brought up to the surface because of the incredible pressure and temperature difference on the way. Very little detritus falls this far down so food is thought to be very limited to these organisms.

General depth of the trenches in the Hadopelagic Zone: 6000 – 11000m The deepest part of the ocean is The Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench at approximately 11,021 meters (36,160 feet). (Ref. NODC Frequently Asked Questions )

For more information on the deep zones, including video, go to our deep sea biome page.

Useful Links

Find out more about pelagic fisheries by the Pelagic Fisheries Research Programme.

Do you want to make sure the fish you are eating isn’t over-fished? Check out FishWatch to find a list of good choices.

Related Topics

Written by Jonas Stenstrom

Jonas is one of the co-founders and lead producers of Untamed Science. He has a background as a marine biologist and science communicator. Jonas has spent several years travelling and documenting nature around the world. He is also the director for the Untamed Science Europe branch and international projects.

You can follow Jonas Stenstrom