The sea is full of life, but not quite that full

A couple weeks ago this photo was going viral with the headline “A Single Drop of Seawater, Magnified 25 Times”:

A bunch of zooplankton

This is not a single drop of seawater, though it is probably magnified 25 times.

This was one of this amazing internet times where there is a total disconnect between people who know about zooplankton and everyone else. Everyone else was having a “My God, it’s full of stars” moment.

Meanwhile, I was bemused. Because this is a pretty standard, even marginally boring, zooplankton sample. I have seen literally thousands of samples (and I am using literally correctly here) that look just like this. There is nothing unusual whatsoever about this picture…except for that it’s based on a misconception.

This is NOT a “drop” of seawater. The ocean is not a thick zooplankton soup, except for in some rare and special circumstances. This is the result of towing a zooplankton net around to concentrate seawater enough to actually look at the zooplankton. Basically, this photo is a swimming-pool amount of ocean concentrated down into about a half-pint of goo.

This is a zooplankton net towing along (a bongo net, which has two nets, specifically). The cod ends are the solid white bits on the right side. That’s where the zooplankton end up.

Bongo net

This is a cod end filled with gooey plankton goodness, ready to be emptied into a bin and preserved:

Cod end being emptied into bucket

Source: MBARI

This is a pint jar of concentrated zooplankton (the center of my life for about 4 years):

Jar of plankton

When you put all that beige goop under the microscope, you get the “single drop” in the viral photo above. My God, it’s filled with critters! But it’s the critters from a pretty big swathe of ocean, artificially brought together.

So, here’s my question, Did people think this was cool because zooplankton are awesome? I hope so! Because zooplankton ARE awesome! And that makes me happy!

Or did people think this was cool because they mistakenly thought that every drop of ocean was stuffed with zooplankton and were kinda freaked out that chaetognaths (the long wormy things) were going to eat their eyeballs? Because that does not make me happy. Chaetognaths are often around 1/2″-1″  long and wouldn’t fit in a drop of seawater (or in your eyeball) anyway.

Regardless, zooplankton going viral made me realize how much scientists can take for granted – knowing that the ocean is full of hard-to-see and beautiful animals, for example. We need to remember to share that more often.

UPDATE: A commenter on Boing Boing pointed me to this background on the original photo. In short, it was taken off Hawaii in 2006 by David Liittschwager, and was actually collected with a dip net, not a towed net. Here’s a photo of a dip net, though Liittschwager collected at night when far more animals are at the surface.  

Dip net

Also, click through for ID of the plankton in the photo by Scripps professor Mark Ohman, who also happens to have been my Ph.D. advisor. (Zooplankton <3 4-evah!)

Miriam Goldstein (228 Posts)

6 comments on “The sea is full of life, but not quite that full
  1. Actually, mostly I thought “What a lot of microscopic creatures in that drop; I am never swimming with my mouth open again”

    Much relieved now! (And yes, more seriously, zooplankton are excellent things to be interested in. My geekery is different – classics/epigraphy – but undeniable.)

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  3. Thank you for sharing this information. The widely spread image is my photo I took in 2005, I don’t know how National Geographic or the before mentioned photographer got this image. The plankton were from out in the vast open ocean in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. They were concentrated a thousand times before being magnified. A lesser concentration of water would not reveal its diversity which is so amazing. Filtering that much water takes a really big net and a really big research vessel. I was stunned to see my photo inaccurately cited and described on Mission Blue facebook recently and then learn that it had been previously published several times earlier. Mission Blue is correcting the misinformation which I appreciate. I do however, appreciate that there is so much interest. I hope those who were turned off of swimming in or exploring the ocean will be relieved and want to keep exploring and learning about the ocean.

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