Illuminating an Unexplored Undersea Universe

By Madin, Kate | Oceanus, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Illuminating an Unexplored Undersea Universe


Madin, Kate, Oceanus


Twenty-five years ago, the Hubble Telescope was launched to look out to the vast darkness of outer space. It captured thousands of images of previously unknown stars, galaxies, and clouds of matter, literally expanding the boundaries of human vision and knowledge.

At the same time, Cabell Davis, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was contemplating how humans could expand their view into the vast darkness of inner space. He spearheaded development of an instrument called the Video Plankton Recorder, or VPR, to capture images of the multitudes of tiny, unseen life in the ocean-plankton.

Plankton is a catchall term (from the Greek word for "drifter") that includes bacteria and other microbes, single-celled plants, tiny animals, jelly-like animals, and larvae. The vast majority of marine animal species are plankton for part or all of their lives.

Individually small, plankton are collectively mighty. Single-celled algae produce about half the oxygen in Earths atmosphere. Abundant plant and animal plankton are the heart of the food webs that sustain fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and eventually people who depend on seafood.

A key question is, how will plankton and ocean ecosystems be affected by ocean conditions that are rapidly changing today? Excess carbon in the atmosphere from fossil-fuel burning is being absorbed by the ocean and lowering its pH. Ocean temperatures are also warming, and circulation patterns may shift.

Basic information about which plankton live where, when, and under what conditions has remained out of our grasp because of the difficulties of finding, identifying, and counting such small organisms in such large ocean areas. Traditionally, scientists sampled plankton with towed nets, but nets are blunt instruments, mixing and damaging fragile plankton. …

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