Arrow worms: voracious plankton predators

You may think orcas or great white sharks are the most voracious predators in the oceans, but based on their abundance and ability to consume a wide range of prey items, chaetognaths (a.k.a. “arrow worms”) give those big animals a run for their money. Large predators like sharks are extremely rare, but scoop up a bucket of seawater almost anywhere in the world and you are likely to find a few chaetognaths (if you have a microscope handy). Chaetognaths are transparent worms that often remain motionless in the water column, apparently relying on the element of surprise to capture a wide variety of plankton, including copepods, appendicularians, small fish larvae, and smaller chaetognaths. Chaetognaths are thought to be generalist feeders because their stomach contents often reflect the community captured by plankton nets. They use a mass of chitinous hooks around their mouths to capture prey – which gives them their name (“chaetognath” translates from Latin to mean “hairy jaw”) and a notoriously menacing appearance.

Chaetognaths are often straight in the ISIIS images but can also swim rapidly for short distances. The camera typically cannot resolve the tiny chitinous hooks on the chaetognath's mouth.

Chaetognaths are often straight in the ISIIS images but can also swim rapidly for short distances. The camera typically cannot resolve the tiny chitinous hooks on the chaetognath’s mouth.

Chaetognaths comprise about 100 species that are all typically 1-2 cm long. They are most abundant along the coasts, with some species being so sensitive to salinity that oceanographers can identify discrete water masses based solely on the community of chaetognath species. Similar to many other types of zooplankton, chaetognaths are hermaphrodites, first being male then changing into female as they get larger. Fertilized eggs can be attached to vegetation or encased in a gelatinous web. Eggs then hatch into juvenile chaetognaths, and thus they have no larval stage. This is called direct development because there is no process of metamorphosis.

A clear image of the chaetognath's mouth on the cover of Current Biology.

A clear image of the chaetognath’s mouth on the cover of Current Biology.

The chaetognath’s body is streamlined and adapted to feeding with minimal visual input. The have sensory cilia that can detect small vibrations in the water that tell the chaetognaths that prey is within striking distance. With a quick flick of its tail, the chaetognath surges forward to capture the prey in its chitinous hooks used for grasping. It then transfers the prey to its mouth where it is swallowed whole. Some deeper water chaetognaths (>700 m deep) can even use bioluminescence to create a cloud of light that scientists think can be used to escape predation (Haddock and Case 1994).

The most handsome chaetognath found by our citizen scientists!

The most handsome chaetognath found by our citizen scientists!


Haddock SHD and Case JF (1994) A bioluminescent chaetognath. Nature 367:225

Johnson WS and Allen DM (2005) Zooplankton of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts: A guide to the identification and ecology. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD

Lalli CM and Parsons TR (1997) Biological oceanography an introduction. Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, Burlington, MA


Why do the images look the way they do?

As you may know by now, the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging system (ISIIS) is the instrument we used to obtain the images of plankton for Plankton Portal.  It captures images as it travels through the water column.  The idea behind this imaging system was to film a large volume of water in order to detect and image relatively rare zooplankton, like larval fish and small jellies.

So why are the images are black and white, very contrasted and almost like a line drawing? Our challenge in designing this instrument was to be able to employ macro-photography at a fast speed, obtain a large depth of field (large volume sampled), while minimizing motion blur. After researching for a few months we settled on an imaging technique that could answer our demands: Shadow imaging or focus shadowgraphy!

Gary setlles

a) prehistoric shadowgraphy, b) sunlight shadowgram of a martini glass, c) “focused” shadowgram of a common firecracker explosion, d) “Edgerton” shadowgram of the firing of an AK-47 assault rifle
Gary S. Settles

This technique is actually not new and was used extensively for the study of shockwaves as well as ballistic. The idea is to cast a shadow onto a sensor or film instead of trying to directly record the imaged object. Let me explain: since most plankton are small and quite transparent, imaging using a traditional camera must rely on ambient sunlight. In this scenario, you won’t see much because the organisms blend into the surrounding water. Imaging a shadow cast by ISIIS reveals their distinct shape and location. It’s like looking at the shadows at the bottom of a swimming pool created by the sun going through the water! In this case, we do not use the ambient sunlight, but create our own light beam using a blue LED light and a set of mirror and lenses. The light is collimated, meaning that the light beam travels in a tight, parallel direction like that of a laser thus ensuring that even over long distances, we can create a very good shadow. We then use a specific set of lenses aligned with the camera to capture this shadowgraph image. Since the light beam is directed toward the camera sensor, it allows for very high speed imaging and avoids motion blur when moving through the water. Lastly, we invert the images for aesthetic purposes on the site, and voila! Now you have a beautiful set of black and white images of plankton for the world to see!

isiis optics

This schematic shows the optical alignment inside ISIIS. A bean of light is collimated by a large lens and the refocused after going through the water. The camera records the shadows casted by the plankton as the moves behind the ship

So for all the people who asked about why some of the ctenophores (like lobates, beroids, and cydippids) were so ‘overexposed,’ now you know. These animals are dense and not very transparent, thus casting a hard shadow onto the lens. Instead of appearing black as a typical shadow, we have inverted the image and now they appear white.

lobate ex

Lobate ctenophore