The emergence of pattern in the natural world can carry important messages about underlying processes. Historically, natural sciences consisted largely of classifying and sorting specimens. Across scientific disciplines, classifications have been applied to many levels of organization: sub-atomic particles, biological species, galaxies. Classifying group members with similar characteristics allows us to explore the organizing processes in nature that generate pattern. Good classification schemes can reveal connections and relationships, such as phylogenies or cladograms, inspire new questions and play other important roles in moving science forward.
In ecology, patterns exist on many scales; for example, collections of broadly similar terrestrial ecosystems have historically been categorized as biomes – groupings of systems which sort along energetic and structural process axes. In marine systems a similar classification of biomes has not emerged.
Here we show that gross primary production and substrate mobility not only effectively sort marine biomes, but also work on finer scales discriminating communities within each biome. This approach is more effective than more familiar scales for organizing marine systems, such as available light and nutrients. The effectiveness of this mapping provides support for the hypothesis that primary production and substrate mobility are important underlying processes that interact to structure marine ecosystems.