Larvae, Ctenophores and… Chaetognaths, oh my!

These are just some of the things you will see under the sea. But not without the aid of a microscope! These are all examples of plankton, organisms that are at the mercy of the ocean’s currents, and are often (but not always!) vey, very tiny.

This past weekend, our 326 class went to explore Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. One of the many amazing things we had the chance to do was collect and examine plankton samples.

“Plankton… who cares?” you may ask. Well the answer would be a lot of things! For one, many organisms in the ocean spend at least a part of their lives as plankton. They have to survive being tiny and vulnerable, in order to grow into the adult forms that we’re used to seeing. Seastars, barnacles, mussels and even fish, spend a portion of their lives as part of the zooplankton community.

Check out this barnacle Nauplius larva Credit : Wim van Egmond

Check out this barnacle Nauplius larva
Credit : Wim van Egmond

Plankton also forms the basis of the marine food web, on which everything else needs to live. Without plankton, our oceans would essentially become wastelands, and that wouldn’t be interesting (at least biologically) at all!

a simple marine food chain credit: www.buzzle.com

a simple marine food chain
credit: www.buzzle.com

I’ve always thought of plankton samples like one big, nerdy, marine biology Easter egg hunt. You’re constantly looking for that easy to miss, clear piece of “something” that you haven’t seen yet, in a sample of a hundred other things. There’s always that spark of excitement when you finally find something different. There were a lot of these moments like this for our class; we saw salps, comb jellies, baby barnacles and crabs, arrow worms and more! We ended up having to break out the extra microscopes, because no one wanted to give up their spots.

How much do you think you can see in a sample this size?

How much do you think you can see in a sample this size?

The answer would be all of this! (Bonus: Can anyone spot the Hydromedusa?)

The answer would be all of this! (Bonus: Can anyone spot the Hydromedusa?)

What plankton you can see actually changes depending on when you sample! They’re no just floating about in there all willy-nilly (well they kind of are), during the day zooplankton hang out down in the deep, so they can avoid predators. During the night, it switches, and zooplankton float up from below so they can feast.

This probably why I love plankton so much, it’s never boring, and they play a fundamental role in our marine ecosystems. Which is why it’s so important that we understand them!

If anyone is interested in learning more, I’d suggest checking out the Census of Marine Zooplankton here: http://www.cmarz.org/gallery_new_species.html

They have lots of information for identifying zooplankton, and links to other helpful sites, so happy plankton hunting!

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