It is challenging to study protists with extensive, loosely-associated extracellular structures because of the problems with keeping specimens intact. Here we have tested the suitability of high-speed flow cytometric sorting as a tool for studying such protists using oceanic loricate choanoflagellates as a model. We chose choanoflagellates because their lorica-to-cell volume ratio is > 10 and the voluminous loricae, i.e., the siliceous cell baskets essential for taxonomic identification, only loosely enclose the cells. Besides, owing to low concentrations, choanoflagellates are grossly under-sampled in the oligotrophic ocean. On four research cruises the small heterotrophic protists from samples collected in the photic layer of the South Atlantic and South Pacific oligotrophic (sub)tropical gyres and adjacent mesotrophic waters were flow sorted at sea for electron microscopy ashore. Among the flow-sorted protozoa we were able to select loricate choanoflagellates to assess their species diversity and concentrations. The well-preserved loricae of flow-sorted choanoflagellates made identification of 29 species from 14 genera possible. In the oligotrophic waters, we found neither endemic species nor evident morphological adaptations other than a tendency for lighter silicification of loricae. Common sightings of specimens storing extra costae in preparation for division, indicate choanoflagellates thriving in oligotrophic waters rather than enduring them. Thus, this case study demonstrates that high-speed flow sorting can assist in studying protists with extracellular structures 16–78× bigger than the enclosed cell.
- High-speed flow sorting
- Pelagic loricate choanoflagellates
- Morphological species diversity
- Extensive extracellular structures
- Oligotrophic ocean