We’re talking plankton. Yep, plankton.
Bet most of you don’t know much about plankton, but you probably should, since they contribute substantially to the oxygen you breathe, among other essential planet-supporting activities. Now there’s a fun, mind-expanding way to learn about these exceptionally hard-working organisms—and help scientists collect data about the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans.
In mid-September, Zooniverse launched a project to crowd-source identification of plankton from photographic images captured at various locations around the globe. By identifying the numbers, sizes, and types of plankton found in these areas, scientists can analyze where and when plankton occur at different depths in the ocean; this information is a key to understanding the health of the oceans’ ecosystems.
Plankton are any organisms that live in a “water column” between the surface and bottom of a body of water and are incapable of swimming against a current. (Fun fact: jellyfish are plankton).Consider phytoplankton, photosynthesizing microorganisms that inhabit the upper layer of almost all oceans and bodies of fresh water. According to NASA, they “fuel nearly all ocean ecosystems, serving as the most basic food source for marine animals from zooplankton to fish to shellfish.” Considering how tiny phytoplankton are, it’s mind-blowing how important they are in the great scheme of things. They not only provide critical nutrition for other organisms, but, as a result of photosynthesis at the ocean’s surface, they’re also responsible for much of the oxygen present in the Earth’s atmosphere.
And then there are zooplankton. When zooplankton (animals) consume phytoplankton (plants), some of the carbon from the phytoplankton gets released by the zooplankton as organic material that supports the aquatic food web. And zooplankton themselves are food for almost all fish larvae—in fact, fish populations rely on the density and distribution of zooplankton to match that of new larvae, which might otherwise starve.
The Zooniverse web app starts with a short interactive tutorial, which trains users to measure and identify plankton in photographs taken by the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS). ISIIS is a self-illuminating macro-camera system integrated into an underwater vehicle equipped with a variety of additional sensors to measure the depth, salinity, and temperature of the water, as well as the amount of dissolved oxygen, the light level, and how much chlorophyll is present. In addition to all of that data, ISIIS produces digital images that record the exact location of the various plankton organisms in relation to each other and the environment in which they live. And those are the images Zooniverse needs your help with.
Aside from the citizen science aspect of the project, the ghostly plankton images themselves are eerily beautiful and, considering they not only sit at the very beginning of the food chain, but also help provide oxygen for your lungs, well worth a few minutes of your time.