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Plankton is a general term that includes plants, animals, and bacteria that drift through lakes and the oceans. Plankton are the foundation for all life in the ocean and produce much of the oxygen that sustains life on Earth. Plankton represents a diverse and large group of organisms.
Often, the only factor that the nearly ten thousand different species of plankton have in common is their poor swimming ability. Rather than control where they are moving, like fish, whales, and turtles, plankton simply float wherever the water currents take them. In fact, the word plankton is derived from the Greek word planktos, meaning “to wander.”
Studying and classifying plankton
Biologists identify and count plankton found in water samples. Several different methods are used to collect plankton from water samples, the most common of which includes the use of plankton nets. Most plankton nets are made of nylon or synthetic material that is produced so that the size of the holes between the fibers is uniform. The most common shape for a plankton net is cone-shaped, and the large end of the cone is attached to a metal net ring.
The diameter of the net ring is usually 39 inches (1 meter). The small end of the cone is fitted with a plastic bottle, called a net bucket. The net is pulled slowly behind a boat for a specific distance and plankton larger than the holes in the net are trapped in the net bucket. The net is then reeled into the boat and the plankton trapped in the net bucket are removed for study.
Once the plankton have been removed from the net bucket, scientists identify and count the different species of animals and plants. Once the number of a certain type of plankton found in the net bucket has been counted, biologists calculate the concentration of that organism. The volume of water sampled can be calculated by multiplying the distance the net was towed by the area spanned, by the net ring.
The concentration of different types of plankton gives biologists information about the water quality and ecology (study of the relationships between organisms and their environment). Biologists also use some of the larger and sturdier plankton removed from the net bucket for experiments involving nutrition, reproduction, and different processes in the human body.
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Many plankton are extremely small and pass through even the smallest holes in plankton nets. In order to study these plankton, biologists filter a specified amount of sample water through membranes (tissue) that have very small holes. The water will pass through the membranes, but any plankton larger than the holes in the membranes will be concentrated on top.
Researchers can then attach the membranes to slides and view them under a microscope. Special dyes are often used to stain the plankton in order to see them more clearly. In other cases, the membranes with the plankton on them are ground up and are analyzed chemically, which helps researchers determine the types of plankton in the water.
Because there are so many different types of plankton, counting and identifying them is time-consuming and often difficult. Instead, biologists often classify plankton into broad groups that simplify the process, but still provide important information about the ecology of the water sample. Three criteria often used for plankton classification are size, cell structure, and life history.
Size of plankton There are six major size categories of plankton. They range in size from plankton far too tiny to be seen with the naked eye to organisms that are many feet (meters) long.
- Net plankton: These plankton include species that are large enough to be caught in plankton nets.
- Macroplankton: Plankton larger than 0.79 inches (more than 20 millimeters) are called macroplankton. Macro is the prefix meaning “large.” Macroplankton include the larval (immature worm-like stage) forms of many fish, some marine worms, many different types of crustaceans (water animals with an outside skeleton, including shrimp, crabs, lobsters) and jellyfish that can have tentacles stretching 25 feet (8 meters). Some plants are also classified as macroplankton, such as the giant seaweed Sargassum.
- Mesoplankton: Plankton between the sizes of 0.79 to 0.0079 inches (20 to 0.2 millimeters) are called mesoplankton. The prefix meso means “medium.” Examples of mesoplankton are shrimp-like creatures called euphausids and many types of larval fish.
- Microplankton: These plankton range between 0.0079 to 0.000079 of an inch (between 0.2 and 0.02 millimeters. The prefix micro means “small.”
- Nannoplankton: Plankton between 79 ten-thousandths to 79 millionths of an inch (between 0.02 to 0.002 millimeter) are called nannoplankton. These plankton are so small they must be concentrated on filters in order to be identified. The prefix nanno means “very small.” These plankton include many different types of protozoans (a type of onecelled animal), single-celled plants, and the larvae of crabs, sea urchins, and mollusks.
- Picoplankton: The smallest group of plankton is the picoplankton, which are less than 79 millionths of an inch (2 thousandths of a millimeter or 0.0002 millimeters) wide. Picoplankton are the smallest and most numerous plankton in the ocean. The prefix pico means “extremely small.” Picoplankton include bacteria that ingest organisms for food organisms, as well as a type of bacteria that can gather energy from the Sun as do plants. Picoplankton also include many different species of single-celled protozoans and single-celled plants.
Phytoplankton: Phytoplankton are plants and oxygen-like bacteria. The prefix phyto means “plant.” Most phytoplankton are single-celled organisms, although there are some phytoplankton that form colonies (groups) and others that are multicellular, such as seaweed. In the open oceans, about three-fourths of phytoplankton are nannoplankton. In coastal waters and lakes, phytoplankton tend to be larger, in the microplankton size range.
Diatoms are the most numerous group of phytoplankton. Diatoms are single-celled plants that can be shaped like rods, spools of thread, or pillboxes (round boxes with a top and bottom of equal height). They secrete two shells made of silicon, the same substance that makes up glass.
The plant cell lives inside the silicon shells and produces threads that protrude through perforations in the shells. In some species, the threads join with threads on other diatoms and form long chains. Diatoms are usually found in the surface waters and when conditions are right, they can reach high concentrations that can make the water appear green.
After diatoms, dinoflagellates are the next most common group of phytoplankton. Dinoflagellates come in many different shapes, but commonly look like a chocolate candy kiss placed bottom to bottom with another candy kiss that has two peaks instead of one.
Most have two flagella (whiplike appendages) that they use like propellers to spin through the water. Some are covered with protective plates composed of cellulose, the material that makes up the woody part of trees. A few species of dinoflagellates contain chemicals that poison fish and, occasionally, people. Other dinoflagellates contain pigments that make the ocean appear red.
Zooplankton: Zooplankton are animal plankton that wander in the water currents. Because they are poor swimmers, most zooplankton have special feeding structures that allow them to capture food that they bump into as they drift. These structures come in all forms, from sticky hairs to nets made out of mucous, to brush-like appendages that sweep food particles toward the mouth. Most zooplankton diet on phytoplankton.
The most common zooplankton in the ocean are the crustaceans, which include the crabs, shrimp, and lobsters, and account for about 70% of all zooplankton. In particular, a small shrimp-like animal called the copepod is the most numerous type of animal in the plankton family.
In fact, if all the copepods in the world were divided equally among all the people in the world, each person would receive one billion copepods. Another common zooplankton is the shrimp-like crustacean called the euphausid. Euphausids, also called krill, are slightly bigger than copepods, around 2 inches (5 centimeters) long.
They are so numerous in the waters around Antarctica that the diet of many whales consists entirely of krill. In fresh water, the tiny crustacean Daphnia is the most numerous zooplankton. Daphnia are particularly interesting zooplankton because they can reproduce without mating in the spring and summer using a process called parthenogenesis, where female Daphnia produce exact copies of female offspring.
Other important animal groups found among zooplankton are the jellyfish, the worms, the mollusks (squid and snails), and the echinoderms (sea cucumbers and sea urchins). Some zooplankton are single-celled organisms called protozoans. For example, the foraminifera are a type of amoeba (a one-celled animal) that has a shell with holes through it. Foraminifera produce sticky spines that extend through the holes, where animals that bump into them are captured and eaten.
Bacterioplankton: The smallest type of plankton, bacterioplankton are microscopic single-celled organisms. Along with other forms, they play an important role in the ecology (living organisms and their environment) of aquatic systems. Bacteria are single-celled microscopic organisms. These organisms are numerous. Bacteria digest dead zooplankton and phytoplankton, producing the nutrients and other materials needed for new life to grow.
Life history of plankton
Plankton are also classified according to their life history. Most species of bacterioplankton, phytoplankton, and zooplankton spend their entire life floating and drifting with the currents. These plankton are called holoplankton (holos is the Greek root meaning “entire”).
Other plankton live only the early part of their life as plankton; the adult part of their life is spent in a different part of the ocean or lake. These plants and animals are called meroplankton (meros is the Greek root meaning “mixed”).
Some examples of meroplankton are sea urchins, sea slugs, lobsters, worms, and some coral reef fish. Some aquatic plants are also meroplankton. Many meroplankton scatter eggs into the plankton, where they are fertilized. The fertilized eggs develop into larvae, which float in the plankton. Just as a caterpillar looks nothing like a butterfly, in general these larvae look nothing like the adults they will eventually become.
When the larvae are in the plankton, they eat other plankton or survive off of the yolk that was with them in the egg. Depending on the species, the larvae remain in the plankton for varying periods of time from several days to several months. Afterwards, the larvae settle onto the seafloor or swim away from the plankton and change into their adult form.
Importance of plankton
Plankton are vital to the global climate. Phytoplankton perform photosynthesis, which is a process that uses the energy from sunlight to produce food. In the process of photosynthesis, phytoplankton take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. About half of the oxygen on the planet comes from phytoplankton photosynthesis.
As humans burn oil and gas to keep their cars moving and their houses warm, carbon dioxide is produced. This carbon dioxide holds heat and is one of the leading causes of global warming. It is estimated that phytoplankton remove three billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, as much as all the trees on land.
Plankton are also key to the ecology of the ocean. Phytoplankton are the base of the marine food chain. In other words, they are the food for zooplankton, corals, and mollusks. Even some sharks, such as basking sharks and nurse sharks, rely on phytoplankton for their diet. In turn, fish and larger predators eat the zooplankton. In fact, the giant blue whale relies entirely on shrimp-like zooplankton called euphausids for its diet. Humans also eat fish that prey on plankton.
After plankton die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean. Over millions of years, the dead plankton are buried by sediments, and then eventually converted into fossil fuels such as oil and gas.