Marine protist diversity inventories have largely focused on planktonic environments, while benthic protists have received relatively little attention. We therefore hypothesize that current diversity surveys have only skimmed the surface of protist diversity in marine sediments, which may harbor greater diversity than planktonic environments. We tested this by analyzing sequences of the hypervariable V4 18S rRNA from benthic and planktonic protist communities sampled in European coastal regions. Despite a similar number of OTUs in both realms, richness estimations indicated that we recovered at least 70% of the diversity in planktonic protist communities, but only 33% in benthic communities. There was also little overlap of OTUs between planktonic and benthic communities, as well as between separate benthic communities. We argue that these patterns reflect the heterogeneity and diversity of benthic habitats. A comparison of all OTUs against the Protist Ribosomal Reference database showed that a higher proportion of benthic than planktonic protist diversity is missing from public databases; similar results were obtained by comparing all OTUs against environmental references from NCBI's Short Read Archive. We suggest that the benthic realm may therefore be the world's largest reservoir of marine protist diversity, with most taxa at present undescribed.
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