Many people aren’t aware, but when you accidentally swallow a mouthful of seawater, you are actually swallowing hundreds of microscopic organisms that are smaller than a single grain of sand. These creatures are known as plankton, and they cannot swim on their own; instead, they simply drift through the ocean, going wherever the current takes them. These tiny organisms have an astounding diversity that is often overlooked; however, I firmly believe that plankton are not to be ignored. To prove it, I will now bombard you with cool plankton facts:
- Dinoflagellates, a group of phytoplankton (plankton that gain their energy from sunlight), possess a protein called luciferase that allows them to emit light when they are disturbed. This phenomenon is known as bioluminescence, and it is a delicate combination of totally eerie and totally awesome. You can’t see this display everywhere, but it just so happens that at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island, you can witness it firsthand. If you ever find yourself there, take a stroll down to the docks at night and throw a stone in the water. Prepare to have your mind blown! (Figure 1)
2. The same dinoflagellates that produce the pretty fairy lights can also produce one of the most dangerous neurotoxins known to mankind. When conditions are favourable, phytoplankton can form gigantic blooms; in dinoflagellates, these blooms are the colour of blood. This is known as a red tide; or as I like to call it, the tide of death. These blooms are often laced with a toxic chemical that can cause paralysis or death if consumed. Beware the tide of death.
3. The weight of all the plankton in the ocean is more than that of all the whales and fish combined! This is an astounding fact when you compare the size of a microscopic plankton to a blue whale, the largest organism ever to have lived on Earth. However, when you take a second to consider that this same whale feeds entirely on plankton, you get more of an idea of just how many plankton there are in the ocean.
4. Phytoplankton, though they make up less than half of global primary production, are responsible for over 99% of photosynthetic biomass. This high efficiency allows them to support gigantic food webs, making them one of the most important players in oceanic diversity. If that doesn’t make you appreciate plankton, I don’t know what will!
I hope I’ve succeeded in opening your eyes to how completely wonderful and terrifying plankton are. But just in case you still find whales cooler, here’s a combination of both: a humpback whale feeding on phytoplankton! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_BqC9IIuKU