You may be familiar with a tiny cartoon tyrant by the name of Sheldon J. Plankton who is determined to destroy The Krusty Krab on SpongeBob Squarepants. This little terror is inspired by one species of real-life plankton, named copepods, but in the real world, plankton come in all shapes and sizes, and are incredibly important for the world around us.
Plankton are drifters, carried around by ocean currents, without much say in where they end up. Most people think of plankton as tiny organisms, like water fleas or microscopic algae, but they can also include large jellyfish! You might be thinking, “but jellyfish can control their movement!”, which I can’t deny, but they can’t swim against the current. Rather, they move up and down in the water column, so they too are drifters! In fact, the larval stage of many creatures are found in the oceans as zooplankton–animal plankton. The other type of plankton are plants, or “phytoplankton”. There’s so much phytoplankton in our oceans, that they are responsible for about half of the oxygen in our atmosphere! Not only that, plankton are the important base of the marine food chain. While they often go unnoticed, if we lose them, all the marine species we know and love will lose their food source somewhere down the line.
While out at Bamfield Marine Science Centre, on Vancouver Island, we did a plankton tow. What’s a plankton tow? Essentially, you trail a fine mesh net behind your boat, and drive around in circles for a while, then collect the tiny specks you catch…yes, that doesn’t sound even remotely interesting…but wait! When you take the sample into the lab and pop it under a microscope…voila! You can see some of the most quietly important, weird and wonderful organisms! Some fascinating microscope videos of plankton in action can be found over at Plankton Chronicles. I encourage you to check out my personal favourite video of Iridescent Ctenophores!
If you want to learn more about the wonders of plankton, check out Ocean Drifters, an awesome, short documentary narrated by the one and only Sir David Attenborough!