How plankton blur the line between art and nature

Last weekend our class had the privilege of taking a trip out to Bamfield Marine Science Centre, a research station on the west coast of Vancouver Island, to experience the best part of being a biologist: being in the field. An absurd amount of awesomeness was experienced, including a sea otter at a sea lion colony, bioluminescence, anemone-licking (….) and PLANKTON! Personally, one of my favourite things about the ocean is that, in addition to all the amazing animals we can see with out eyes, whenever we look closer there is always even more to see than before.

For instance, we collected plankton samples using a plankton net so that we could take a closer look at what’s living in the ocean unnoticed by our eyes. Here are some photos I took in the lab of what we found:











Clearly there is a lot going on in the water samples we collected. Much of what you see in the above images include microscope invertebrates and their larval stages (zooplankton), and photosynthetic micro-algae (phytoplankton). A key component of plankton include protists, which are single-celled eukaryotic organisms that play critical roles in photosynthesis, form the base of the food web, and do so much more! Amazingly, these are some of the most intricate and beautiful creatures around, and we cannot even see them with our naked eyes.

Luckily, their beauty has not gone unnoticed by all. Much art has been inspired by this group of organisms, beginning with some of the drawings by Ernst Haeckel, one of the first people to see and describe many protists (and creator of the term). In his book “Art Forms in Nature”, Haeckel was one of the first people to introduce the public to protists.

Cyrtoidea by Ernst Haeckel.

Cyrtoidea by Ernst Haeckel

Haeckel’s drawings of Radiolarians (shown above) went on to serve as inspiration for French artist René Binet’s monumental gate at the 1900 World Fair in Paris. Radiolarians also posses elaborate skeletal structures around their bodies, despite being single-celled organisms. The fossilized skeletons of radiolarians preserve very well and are found all over the ocean floors, leading to their use in dating sediment and rocks. Much remains to be learned about their lifestyles and reproduction, however, since these elusive beauties are difficult to keep alive in a laboratory and are therefore poorly studied in their live form.



Monumental gate from Paris World’s Fair Expo, designed by Rene Binet. Image from


Additionally, the Victorian art of Diatom arranging is a protist inspired medium of inextricable beauty. Diatoms are amazing single-celled creatures that live in tiny shells made of biological class (Silica dioxide) and are responsible for producing 20-25% of all the oxygen on our planet.

I’m off to go search the internet for amazing images of diatoms, but I’ll leave you with this video on one of the last practitioners of this dying art.


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