Tiny, but immensely important: plankton

February 2, 2014 • 10:47 am

by Matthew Cobb

Richard Kirby is a Research Fellow at Plymouth University in the UK, and he specialises in the study of plankton. As part of his long-term research programme, he’s just released ‘Ocean Drifters’, an excellent 16 min video, narrated by David Attenborough. The video explains the variety and importance of plankton, focusing not only their cool life-cyles (many of the zooplankton are larval stages of sponges, jellyfish, molluscs and arthropods) but above all on their role in the carbon cycle.

Plankton help make the sea smell of the sea, they contribute to the existence of clouds (oh yes) and above all, the phytoplankton capture carbon and release oxygen. I cannot emphasise too much how important this video is. It takes 16 minutes of your life, but it will show you the immense importance and staggering beauty of this vital part of our ecosystem. Watch on full screen and, if you can, HD.

h/t @JenniferFrazer who has a great page about this over at SciAm blogs.

For more info, including links to a book and details of the research behind the video, see Richard’s university website.


14 thoughts on “Tiny, but immensely important: plankton

  1. Are we aware of the ecological ‘paradox of the plankton’? Trophic pyramids based on biomass don’t look right if plankton are involved.

  2. Very well done — as is exactly what one would expect from anything that Sir David would lend his voice to.

    I especially appreciated how he addressed everything that I kept wanting him to address, such as the increased atmospheric CO2 levels leading to ocean acidification that is harming the very critters who do the most to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.


    1. But Ben, if plankton remove CO2 from the ocean, i.e. ingest it, depend on it for their existence, how can it harm them?

      1. Carbon dioxide mixed in water is carbonic acid. This is what makes unsweetened soda taste tart.

        Increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere mean that the ocean will absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than normal.

        This increased the acidity of the ocean.

        This increased acidity can harm some forms of plankton, particularly those with delicate shells.

        This was mentioned explicitly in the video. You clearly didn’t watch it very carefully.

      2. You should watch the video; Sir David explains this, and does it well.

        There’re many different kinds of plankton. The phytoplankton are plants; they have chlorophyll and do the classic photosynthesis thing where they use sunlight to power a reaction that combines CO2 and water into sugar and gaseous oxygen. The zooplankton are animals; they eat the phytoplankton for its sugar. Many of the zooplankton have hard, snail-like shells; those shells are made of calcium carbonate — chalk.

        Drop a piece of chalk into some soda water and it’ll do the plop, plop, fizz, fizz bit and soon you’ll have no more chalk. And some of the extra CO2 we’re pumping into the atmosphere is making its way into the oceans and, effectively, carbonating them. Not hugely, but enough to weaken the shells of most animals that have them.

        As atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise, the oceans will continue to become more acidic; this will increasingly lead to the collapse of yet more marine ecosystems, at an accelerating pace. The shelled creatures, including lots of plankton, will go; then the organisms that feed on them; and so on up the trophic chain.

        Life itself isn’t in any danger. Jellyfish, in particular, are superbly well adapted to acidic oceans, even while the vertebrates are rather vulnerable. Your natural lifespan may well extend into a period when ocean life is almost exclusively jellyfish; however, you likely wouldn’t survive the resulting ecological and socioeconomic collapses.



  3. Beautiful. Just beautiful. I thought I would just watch a bit, then ‘back to work’ grading a test. That was 15 minutes ago.
    Great to see the plankton being ‘Attenboroughized’ [not sure how to spell that]. I did not know the degree to which the plankton were an engine for life, natural resources, carbon storage, and even the weather. Well, back to it.

  4. Which is why it is so important to prevent Russia,, Canada, the US and Denmark from exploiting the Arctic for oil and gas. The recent huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the chemicals used for dissolving the oil must surely have had a terrible effect on the plankton there and thus affected the food chain which is likely responsible for the deaths, malformations, etc., of so much of the local fauna.

  5. Thanks Matthew!

    When at the beach, I was wondering why the foam felt the way it did, now I at least have some insight.

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