August 20 – Going With The Flow

Today’s factismal: “Plankton” means “a lot of floating critters”; “plankter” means “just one floating critter”.

There are many interesting and slightly disgusting facts about the water that fills our rivers, lakes, and oceans. There are jellies that feed on the chemicals coming from hydrothermal vents; the feeding must be good because the jellies can reach 160 feet long! And not everything lives off of chemicals; there are zombie worms that eat the bones of dead whales on the ocean floor. A little farther up in the water column, there are about a trillion fish living in the ocean, none of which get out to use the bathroom. Even worse, there are about one million bacteria and ten million viruses in every teaspoon of sea water. And that last set of disgusting critters is what is known in the ocean biz as plankton (from the Greek planktos for “drifter”).

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice (Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice
(Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

Plankton are little critters that are too small and weak to swim against the tide so instead they drift with it going wherever the currents take them. As is the case on land, most plankton get their energy from sunlight; these are known as phytoplankton because they act just like plants (phytos if you are Greek or a geek). The zooplankton are animals that nibble on other plankton and whatever else they can get their jaws around; interestingly, a lot of bigger animals spend at least a little time as zooplankton. These meroplankton include starfish, crustaceans, worms, and lots and lots of fish (who still don’t get out of the water to go to the bathroom). And then there are the bacteriaoplankton, little bugs that eat the leftovers of the other two groups which sometimes includes the dead members of the other two groups.

A small zooplankton, drifting along (Image courtesy Mikhail Matz, NOAA)

A small zooplankton, drifting along
(Image courtesy Mikhail Matz, NOAA)

And that leads us to what may the most interesting and slightly disgusting fact of all: we still don’t know where most of the plankton in the ocean live! Until recently, we thought that they were mostly confined to the near surface where the phytoplankton could get lots of sunlight and the zooplankton could get lots of phytoplankton. But that may not be true. As we have learned more about the types of places that life thrives, we have learned that life thrives in unexpected places. And the Plankton Portal wants your help to identify some of those places. By looking at pictures taken of sea water from different places in different oceans, you can see plankton floating around. And by identifying each plankter, you can help the oceanographers understand how nutrients and energy move around in the ocean, which will help them understand how life actually is lived here on planet Earth. To learn more about the project, swim to:
http://www.planktonportal.org/

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