A secret world beneath the waves

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Dr Richard Kirby is a plankton scientist and a keen plankton advocate. With sponsorship from ZEISS and various of our stereo and zoom microscopes he produced a massive amount of outstanding plankton micrographs for science and educational projects. His latest works include a short film and accompanying book (print & e-book) to showcase the amazing world of life beneath the oceanic waves. The film, narrated by none other than David Attenborough, is called Ocean Drifters.

 

 

The plankton are all those creatures that drift at the mercy of the ocean currents. It’s an amazing world of life of striking beauty and is mostly, too small to be seen by the naked eye and so to bring them into view, During his scientific career, Richard has always used ZEISS microscopes for taking his beautiful micrographs. While often overlooked, the plankton affect every aspect of our lives. In the sea, the microscopic phytoplankton begin the marine food chain by using the sun’s energy to combine carbon dioxide and water to create sugar and oxygen in the process known as photosynthesis. Despite being tiny (each phytoplankton cell is smaller in diameter than a strand of human hair), they are so numerous that they account for about 50% of all photosynthesis on Earth.

Young spaghetti worms, beautiful Terebellidae soon settling to the sea bed
Young spaghetti worms, beautiful Terebellidae soon settling to the sea bed

The phytoplankton are the food of herbivorous zooplankton (animal plankton) in turn eaten by carnivorous zooplankton. Together all the plankton are the food for fish, which in turn are eaten by other sea creatures such as seabirds, sharks, and seals, in their turn eaten by larger predators like killer-whales and polar bears. The plankton are also the food source of some of the largest mammals on Earth, the baleen whales. In this way the plankton food web underpins and determines the amount of life in the sea. Quite simply, without the plankton there would not be any fish in the sea for you, me or other creatures to eat.

Tiny needle-like Ceratium fusus belong to the most abundant phytoplankton at the base of the marine food chain
Tiny needle-like Ceratium fusus belong to the most abundant phytoplankton at the base of the marine food chain

The plankton do much more than just support the marine food web however, as they also play a central role in the global carbon cycle. Over hundreds of millions of years, the dead remains of plankton that settled to the sea floor created slowly our oil and gas reserves, thereby sequestering atmospheric carbon in the sediments. Today we use this processed plankton for our transport, the man made materials of the clothes we wear, and to fuel modern agriculture. Their influence doesn’t end there, however. The plankton also shaped the landscape around us. Much of England is made from the calcium carbonate remains of phytoplankton that lived in Cretaceous seas and this includes the iconic White Cliffs of Dover. Cement made from these calcium carbonate deposits holds our homes and cities together.

With good timing fish eggs appear in the spring plankton. When the larvae hatch they'll be surrounded by food.
With good timing fish eggs appear in the spring plankton. When the larvae hatch they’ll be surrounded by food.

To accompany the film Richard has produced a book full of plankton images that is available at his project’s website Oceandrifters.org.

Richard’s own website is Planktonpundit.org and you can follow the “Plankton Pundit” on Twitter for up-to-date plankton imaging from the waters around Plymouth.

Interested in ZEISS stereo and zoom microscopes? Visit our website and get in contact!

Tags: Light Microscopy

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