Plankton is hard enough to see, especially when you add in transparency!

This past weekend our class made the journey to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island. We’re so lucky to be living next door to a fantastic place to study marine biology because you become completely immersed and can learn so much about the biodiversity of the region. Over the course of the weekend we had the chance to learn about what creatures we share this environment with and also have a blast doing it!

One particular highlight of the trip for me was going out onto Grappler Inlet to collect some plankton samples. Not only did I have the great company of seven fellow intelligent and hilarious students, we had the luck of having fantastic weather, (not a drop of rain and not a gust of wind). It was very serene and we felt as if we were the only people there.

Grappler Inlet

Grappler Inlet

After enjoying the scenic views and spotting super cute seals, we decided to get to work! We measured the salinity and temperature of the water at different depths and then we also measured the photic zone. The photic zone is the upper area of the water, where sunlight can penetrate.

Plankton tow

Plankton tow

Then, we used a plankton tow to collect a sample of some of the plankton in the area. We threw the plankton tow into the water and spun around in circles chatting about what we might find.

Plankton is a general term, which includes zooplankton, small animals that eat other animals to gain energy, and phytoplankton, photosynthesizing organisms, which harvest energy from the sun. Plankton can range from anything that is algae to a predatory animal.

After several minutes, we pulled the tow back up and took a quick glimpse of what we caught but we couldn’t see too much so we inspected the samples under a microscope.

Under the microscope it looked like this:

Sample of the plankton under a microscope

Sample of the plankton under a microscope

At first glance it looks likes a complete undecipherable mess! However, when you take a closer look at the samples you can see diatoms, mollusk larvae, arthropods, echinoderm larvae, and some of my favourite animals – ctenophores (also known as comb jellies), just to name a few.

A ctenophore is a fascinating animal to study because it is actually transparent. I think transparent animals are some of the coolest animals, because they evolved to be inconspicuous to predators. However, transparent animals still face many challenges, as they need to conceal their eyes and guts, which are usually pigmented. They do this in different ways such as simply reducing the size or spreading out the pigments so they don’t appear clustered.

Here is a ctenophore in the plankton sample we collected, it is very difficult to see, but that’s the point!

A ctenophore from the plankton sample under a microscope

A ctenophore from the plankton sample under a microscope

You can see the label comb row – a comb row is simply a row of thousands of cilia, which beat and help them push through the water and move around. Watching them move is memorizing, and the way the light bounces off them can make gorgeous rainbow patterns. Check out this you tube video to see how they move and how beautiful they can look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGFrcWD2jYA.

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