What’s the goal of this research project?

The underlying objective of this research project is centered on a small-scale front and its associated biological activity. A front is a meeting of two water masses, and oceanic fronts are generally broken up into several broad categories, depending on the physical environment and phenomenon that cause these water masses to converge. Oceanographers have been interested in fronts for a long time, because they tend to be areas of high productivity. The elevated productivity at fronts is a result of the converging water masses physically aggregating many marine organisms.

Small-scale fronts are, as the name suggests, smaller in spatial scale: they tend to occur on the order of tens of kilometers instead of hundreds to thousands of kilometers like some of the other major fronts. Small-scale fronts occur frequently, but have also been harder to describe because they are more ephemeral than large fronts.

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Sampling region in the Southern California Bight (SCB)

We set out to study one particular small-scale front in the Southern California Bight (SCB, see map for study region) because it was in an area that has received long-term oceanographic investigation – it is always good to do studies where there is lots of baseline data. We were primarily interested in exploring what biota was out there and seeing if there was biological aggregation at the front.  Indeed there was! We saw a large aggregation of our now favorite jellyfish, Solmaris rhodoloma, at the front and described it in a 2012 research paper. You don’t have to worry about reading it. It basically says what I just told you: we found a lot of Solmaris at this small-scale, salinity-driven front.

Solmaris rhodoloma aggregation

Solmaris rhodoloma aggregation

One of the interesting things about Solmaris is that they are part of a family of medusae that predate exclusively on other gelatinous zooplankton. They have been known to eat arrow worms and doliolids, but now, because of our images, we also think they are eating larvaceans and small siphonophores as well. So finding the large aggregation of Solmaris actually generated another research question for us: what’s going on with the rest of the gelatinous zooplankton at and around this front? What are the main processes driving their distribution? Is predation pressure from Solmaris affecting them in any way?

It turns out that the second question is much harder to answer than you would think. Not knowing exactly what Solmaris is eating, and how long they’ve been accumulating at the front makes it difficult for us to tell if they’re just happening upon a patch of prey or they have already eaten everything around them. One approach is to determine the movements and directions of the organisms, which is why we’re asking you to measure their orientation. We hope that knowing their orientation (and that of their potential prey) can help us model their movement patterns and “age” the Solmaris aggregation, so to speak. Of course, it’s possible that even with this data we will still not be able to determine how long Solmaris has been aggregating at the front. However, this kind of orientation information has never been acquired for jellyfish of this size and at this scale, so any data we gather will be new and interesting!

This is just one of many questions that Plankton Portal can help answer.  The biological data contained within these images can bring us closer to a greater understanding of zooplankton ecology in general.  Understanding the abundance, distribution and biomass (that’s where the size measurements come in) of this extremely understudied group of organisms – the small gelatinous zooplankton – can help us assess their broader impact in the marine food web, contribution to carbon cycling, and even help us learn how to identify hotspots of marine productivity in the future. This is how research grows and develops: it starts from a small, initial question (“hmm, I wonder if there is anything interesting at a small offshore front?”), which leads us to additional questions, and down the road, will hopefully help mankind appreciate and better protect its precious marine resources.

Thank you for your help and participation in Plankton Portal – you are contributing to a more knowledgeable future and hopefully one where we can better care for the sea around us.

Fantastic Finds Fridays: Week 2! #FFF

We are at the end of week 2 and we pulled out some of the best finds from this past week. As a reminder, every Friday we will post a selection of Fantastic Finds. If you think you have found something really great on Plankton Portal then tag #FFF and we will check it out for use on the blog. Thanks for tagging your favorites this week!

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Larval fish
http://talk.planktonportal.org/#/subjects/APK00015nq

Larval fish are actually considered part of the plankton, as fish in their early life stages will drift along in the oceanic environment. Because larval fish are relatively poor swimmers, they are under high predation pressure and more than 99% of baby fish that hatch from eggs will not make it! It’s a tough life. You might not know it from this site, but studying larval fish is a major component of our lab. Dr. Cowen has spent his career studying larval fish, their distributions, dispersal and population connectivity. In this particular study, we did not sample very many larval fish so we did not include it as one of the categories. However, we are incredibly interested whenever we see one so definitely tag the fish in the forum when you see any! #Larval #fish

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Liriope tetraphylla (#Medusae #4tentacles) with Arrow worm
http://talk.planktonportal.org/#/subjects/APK0000q5x

This is one of my favorite pictures from this week because what you see Liriope tetraphylla actually eating the arrow worm! Here one of his tentacles has brought up the arrow worm into the gastric peduncle (that’s the long thin appendage in the middle of the umbrella that looks like a handle). He appears to be holding the arrow worm in place while he eats his dinner. As far as I know, the only scientific study of what Liriope eats is from a paper by Larry Madin in 1988, published in the Bulletin of Marine Science, where he found that Liriope eats larvaceans, crustacean larvae, heteropods and juvenile fish. No one has reported that Liriope also eats arrow worms … until now.

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Sphaeronectes koellikeri – #rocketship #thimble
http://talk.planktonportal.org/#/subjects/APK00002cl

This beautiful creature falls within the broad group of jellyfish-relatives called the Siphonophores. Here you see this animal in a stunning feeding display. Though these guys are small and relatively inconspicuous, other siphonophores can get up to hundreds of feet long, and as a group are considered the deadliest predators in the ocean.  One fun fact: these rocketship siphonophores grow from the base of the stem towards the tail end. So the tail end of the stem is one of the oldest parts of the body. Sometimes you’ll even see small rocketships budding from the tail!

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Radiolarian colony – #radiolarian #colony
http://talk.planktonportal.org/#/subjects/APK00003kq

We know that you’ve been frustrated by those small fuzzy round objects that invite classification but really aren’t supposed to be classified. Those are protists, a diverse group of eukaryotic microorganisms. One type of protist is the radiolarian, which are known for their glass-like exoskeleton, or “tests.” They are incredibly important in marine science because their tests are made of silica, which are preserved in marine sediments after they die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, and provide a record for paleo-oceanographic conditions, such as temperature, water circulation, and overall climate.

Radiolarians also form colonies. Colonial radiolarians are interesting because first, little is known about them, despite their abundance in the open ocean, and secondly, they are hosts to symbiotic algae that are modest but significant primary producers in the ocean. It has also been suggested that we are vastly underestimating the abundance of radiolarian colonies. Since primary production (photosynthesis, the conversion of sun energy into carbon) is the basis upon which all ocean life can exist, it’s incredibly important to understand who all the different primary producers are and how many of them are out there!

 

That’s all, folks. Thanks for reading, thanks for classifying, and remember: mark your favorites with #FFF for next week’s Fantastic Finds Friday!

Why do we need Citizen Science?

In many fields of science, new technology is leading to unprecedented data production. This, in turn, requires extensive analysis with minimal sub-sampling to detect as much detail as possible. In biological oceanography, imaging systems have become more useful with increasing computer speed and storage capabilities, and image data address some of the fundamental problems with traditional sampling methods that are destructive to fragile organisms (i.e., jellyfish and marine snow). On a given tow with our system, the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS), we produce approximately 400,000 images in 7 hours with many different species across a range of sizes present in each image (500 μm to 13 cm). This is an incredible amount of information that would take years for one person to fully analyze. When we are out at sea, we typically sample for WEEKS and come back to land with millions of images. Computer algorithms can perform basic tasks of extracting specimens that look similar, but human brains are extremely adept at interpreting an organism in 3D and providing context in the image data that a computer cannot. The amazing abilities of people to recognize patterns that computer algorithms may see as unimportant cannot be underestimated.

Shrimp photograph taken from under a microscope

Shrimp photograph taken from under a microscope (photo credit: Cedric Guigand)

Another reason we are using Citizen Science is so that you, the citizen scientist, can participate in the process of discovery. After all, most oceanographic research is funded at least in part by taxpayer money, and these novel plankton images combined with Citizen Science are a great way to engage those who fund the research. We think it is far more effective to cultivate interest in science through the discovery process itself, rather than the production of jargon-filled reports and papers only understood by other oceanographers (don’t worry, those will come later). In addition, this online format provides an opportunity for us to educate people about life in the oceans, potentially inspiring the next generation of ocean scientists. With Citizen Science, there is the potential for new discoveries arising from simply allowing many people to look at the images.

This larva of a deep water shrimp was captured in the Gulf Stream near South Florida (Photo credit: Cedric Guigand)

This larva of a deep water shrimp was captured in the Gulf Stream near South Florida (photo credit: Cedric Guigand)

We believe our research with ISIIS is particularly applicable to Citizen Science and the process of discovery because this new imaging technology provides a huge amount of data and a unique glimpse into ocean life. I have spent the last 5 years of my graduate school career at the University of Miami examining hundreds of thousands of plankton images, and every time I flip through the images, I always have the feeling that I could see something that no human has ever seen before. I try to instill this sense of wonder and hope for discovery in all people that work with the images, because when you see something interesting, like an elaborate siphonophore or a dense patch of copepods, you are likely the first person to see that species in its natural environment. When we get enough eyes on these images and discussions facilitated through the Plankton Portal website, the sky’s the limit for the discoveries that can be made with Citizen Science!

Amazing Plankton Videos

Hi all! we wanted to share this website, called Plankton Chronicles, with you. It is an amazing collection of plankton related mini videos. You’ll get to see some color videos of your favorite plankton. Who knows? it may also help you in your classification effort. Enjoy!

http://www.planktonchronicles.org/en

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The Plankton Chronicles series was created by Christian Sardet (CNRS), Sharif Mirshak and Noé Sardet (Parafilms) in the context of the Tara Oceans Expedition and the Marine Station of Villefranche sur Mer (CNRS / UPMC). The series has received financial support from CNRS (INSB / INEE), IBISA, UPMC and the Ville de Nice.

Why use images to study plankton?

Although ocean science has made many great advances, many biological processes are still poorly understood. In the sciences generally, a common theme is using new technology to examine patterns on smaller, more fundamental scales (e.g., DNA technology in biology, nanoparticle physics), with the goal of revealing underlying mechanisms. Plankton imaging is a method to examine patterns of organisms on a smaller scale, giving insight into how these organisms live and interact with each other. In addition, many planktonic animals are fragile and easily destroyed by plankton nets: the traditional tool to study plankton distributions. These plankton nets also suffer from the problem of having to sample over large portions of the water column, so an oceanographer might use a single net to capture copepods and shrimps and assume that these organisms co-occur if they appear in the same sample. However, it is entirely possible that the organisms are confined to discrete thin layers that do not overlap spatially. An imaging system can distinguish between these two scenarios, while a plankton net cannot. Images also provide information about the natural orientation of plankton, which can allow us to make predictions about their movement and feeding strategies.

 The bongo net is a traditional tool of biological oceanographers but is biased toward plankton with a hard exoskeleton (crustaceans) (Image source: NOAA Cruise DE 10-09 Report).

The bongo net is a traditional tool of biological oceanographers but is biased toward plankton with a hard exoskeleton (crustaceans) (Image source: NOAA Cruise DE 10-09 Report).

When we think about the future of our planet, climate change and predicting its effects are of great concern. In order to make meaningful predictions about a system, you need to create a mathematical model. One of the most important aspects of any model is the initial conditions and baseline variability. For many planktonic animals, especially jellyfish, we do not know their abundance, variation, or how they interact within the oceanic food web, which is all crucial information for predicting the future of our oceans under climate change conditions. Using an imaging system like ISIIS can lead to better population estimates of many different plankton types, and this information can complement many types of oceanographic studies. Fine-scale data can improve estimates of feeding and encounter rates for planktonic organisms, which is critical to our understanding of the oceanic food web.

A colony of salps such as this one would be destroyed or broken up into individuals if sampled with a net system. The in situ image in this situation gives information on the asexual budding of this fast reproducing phytoplankton grazer.

A colony of salps such as this one would be destroyed or broken up into individuals if sampled with a net system. The in situ image in this situation gives information on the asexual budding of this fast reproducing phytoplankton grazer.

When compared to plankton samples preserved in ethanol or formalin, image data provide distinct advantages in data processing and collaboration. For one, oceanographers can tackle age old questions like what are the biological and physical drivers of plankton aggregations and dispersal, and how do plankton aggregations impact the populations of wild fish, a multi-billion dollar global industry? The ‘digitization’ of biological data improves the ability to share data, fostering collaboration among ocean scientists with differing expertise. Having these images available on the internet (through a database server) increases the accessibility of biological oceanography to students, teachers, and the public. It is our hope to one day have these images available to the public, so everyone can gain an appreciation for the diversity of life in the ocean and perhaps use them to supplement science classes. The Zooniverse and Citizen Science is a great start to achieving these goals of making ocean science more “open access,” and we are so appreciative of your help!

Welcome to the Plankton Portal!

Plankton species are a beautiful and fascinating group of organisms. We can’t wait to show you what we have seen of these diverse and elusive critters.  Let us start from the beginning—the five W-questions:

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What is plankton?
The word Plankton comes from the Greek word planktos meaning “wanderer” or “drifter”.  They are a group of organisms that are too small or too fragile to swim against naturally occurring currents. Plankton inhabit both freshwater and marine environments, such as lakes, ponds, and oceans.  Plankton can be broadly divided into two main groups: phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals). Phytoplankton are one of the primary producers in the ocean; like plants, they carry out photosynthesis to covert inorganic nutrients and light energy into organic material. Zooplankton, on the other hand, graze on phytoplankton or consume other zooplankton smaller than themselves. While you might think that plankton are too small to be seen by unaided eyes; that is not entirely true. Planktonic organisms have a very wide range in sizes. Many of them are microscopic in size; but others, like jellyfish, could grow up to more than one meter long.

Why do we study plankton?
Plankton are crucial to the marine ecosystem.  As a group, plankton form the basis of many marine food webs in that they are an important food source to organisms ranging from larval fish to the largest animal on earth—the blue whale. In addition, plankton play an important role in nutrient cycling in the ocean; such as carbon and nitrogen cycle.  Even humans are affected by plankton. As plankton are a food source for many marine organisms, our fishery industries depend highly upon these planktonic organisms as a source of fish productivity. Beyond being food, some plankton can also create problems to the fishing industry and even tourists visiting the shore when forming noxious blooms such as red tides.

How do we study plankton?
There are several ways to sample plankton: bottles, nets, acoustics, imaging systems, etc. Nets are the most common way of plankton sampling. Nets of different size, shape and design are used depending on the type of plankton of interest. A net is towed behind a moving vessel at the desired depth in order to collect and concentrate the planktonic organisms. When the net moves through the water column, plankton is retained in the net. One on board, the plankton ‘slurry’ is removed from the net and then (usually) preserved for later viewing and analysis under a microscope in the laboratory.

In this project, we sampled plankton by using a plankton imaging system – In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS). ISIIS acts as a “virtual net” which captures the images of the organisms and information about their immediate surroundings. By sampling continuously, the result is a collection of digital images that record the exact location of the various planktonic organisms in relation to each other and the environment in which they live.

Where and when
The images currently shown in the Plankton Portal were taken in the Southern California Bight approximately 30 miles south of San Nicolas Island on October 15-17, 2010, on board the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada. But we are continuously traveling the world to bring new images and better understand how these little guys make a living in the ocean! ISIIS has also been towed in the Atlantic off of Georges Bank and Stellwagen Bank, MA, Straits of Florida, Gulf of Mexico, and recently off southern France in the Mediterranean.

This current project is to study the aggregation (patchiness) and distribution of different plankton in a small-scale front (where two different water masses meet) in the SCB. We want to know which organisms are present at the front (vs. those that may avoid it), and what they are doing there (e.g. are they prey or predators?). We need your help in identifying the organisms captured by ISIIS.