Extreme (Plankton) Closeup!

by Jennifer Frazer on February 22, 2010

Punk rockers are clearly dinoflagellate posers. Is it just me or does (a) appear to be a member of the House Harkonnen? Dinoflagellate micro-plankton of Atlantic tropical waters. P. 75. In: "Aus den Tiefen des Weltmeeres" by Carl Chun, 1903. NOAA Photo Library.

Most people have only seen plankton in crappy, fuzzy photos in college textbooks, if they’ve seen it at all. If you have heard of it, it’s probably in the context of the stuff baleen whales eat, and that’s about it. I personally was lucky enough to see an entire jar of the delicacy when I visited the Smithsonian’s Sant Ocean Hall last fall. It looked a lot like the larvae of the neural parasites that took over the brains of the Federation’s top brass in the first season of Star Trek: TNG. Mmmm, mmmm good!

Plankton is not a taxonomic/phylogenetic group like most of the things I write about on this blog. Plankton instead refers to any sea creatures that drift. That can include things as large as jellyfish, but typically plankton are much smaller and include things as small as the bacteria, archaea, and viruses with which the oceans teem. The phytoplankton, or photosynthesizing component, are responsible for half of the oxygen you breathe.

Well, someone’s finally taken some skillful, beautiful pictures of the plankton and they’ve gone on display at the London Zoo in honor of the Royal Society’s 350th Anniversary (Dang! That Society’s been around over 100 years longer than my country!). Over at the BBC there is a don’t-miss slide show of the exhibit, narrated by the scientist photographer, Dr. Richard Kirby. Let me repeat that: DON’T MISS THIS SLIDE SHOW.

You’ll get to see how evolution has taken body plans on some interesting trips, as larvae that retain ancestral forms metamorphose into sea creatures you are more likely to recognize. The squid-like larval origin of starfish, in particular, is a fascinating thing.

One final note — Dr. Kirby mentions that plankton are responsible for the characteristic smell of the sea. That is not surprising to me. When I was a grad student in plant pathology at Cornell, I was startled one day to discover that dirt doesn’t smell like dirt. Dirt smells like the bacteria that are living in dirt. In one lab we were allowed to sniff (I believe “waft” is the preferred term) a pure culture of soil bacteria. It was a clear agar dish with opaque colonies of bacteria. But it smelled just like fresh topsoil or a cave — dirty, earthy, wonderful.

Discovered thanks to the fine staff of Deep Sea News.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cristina February 23, 2010 at 3:08 am

They look even funkier under a microscope! Preferably an electron-scanning microscope at that! ;)
But they can give you massive headaches when you spend hours looking through a time tube into a glass column with diatoms and dinoflagellates and tintinnids sedimented at the bottom and you’ve got to not only identify them… but count them all as well!
And people wonder why I hurt my back and my eyesight got worse? hmmm… :p

Warren February 23, 2010 at 8:28 am

The bacteria you are smelling are the same aerobic bacteria responsible for denitrification in aquariums. I believe they are from genus Nitrobacter, and others. I find the best way to tell people to check if their aquarium is healthy is to check if it smells like a “garden after rain”. If it doesn’t, then maybe certain harmful anaerobics are taking over.


Daniel Poth February 23, 2010 at 9:45 am

You had to bring up “Conspiracy” didn’t you? I’ve never gotten over how that plot line was just dropped like a bad habit. Ugh!

Jennifer Frazer February 23, 2010 at 10:16 am

Cristina — Oh, I feel your pain. I spent countless hours hunched over microscopes counting sleeping fruitflies, Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) and HeLa tissue culture cells (made recently famous by Rebecca Skloot) and fungal Alternaria spores. If I never see another hemocytometer, it will be too soon. They’re still cool to look at for those of us who aren’t stuck doing it full time, though! : )

Daniel — Yeah, that’s the kind of episode that really sticks with you, if you know what I mean. I still remember it all these years later, and it’s been 22, if you can believe that!

Warren — I totally love that garden after rain smell too. Thanks for the tip!

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