Plankton are drifting organisms that live in the surface layers of the ocean. They live in the top layer of the ocean, called the epipelagic zone. They are not strong enough to swim against ocean currents. The term is in contrast to nekton, who can control their movements. There are three groups:
- Phytoplankton: which live at the surface of the ocean and photosynthesise (use light to make sugars and other molecules).
- Zooplankton: small protozoans or metazoans: Ctenophores; jellyfish; rotifers; foraminifera; tiny crustacea and other animals. Some eggs and larvae of larger animals such as fish, crustaceans, and annelids. Apart from the eggs, they all feed on other plankton.
- Some groups fall into both categories. Dinoflagellates can be either photosynthetic producers or heterotroph consumers; many species are mixotrophic depending upon their circumstances. It is also hard to fit viruses into this scheme; yet they are present in great numbers.
Plankton are important in the ocean's food chain.
Aside from representing the bottom few levels of a food chain that supports commercially important fisheries, plankton ecosystems play a role in the biogeochemical cycles of many important chemical elements, including the ocean's carbon cycle.
Primarily by grazing on phytoplankton, zooplankton provide carbon to the planktic foodweb, either respiring it to provide metabolic energy, or upon death as biomass or detritus. Organic material tends to be denser than seawater, so it sinks into open ocean ecosystems away from the coastlines, transporting carbon along with it. This process, called the biological pump, is one reason that oceans constitute the largest carbon sink on Earth. However, it has been shown to be influenced by increments of temperature.
It might be possible to increase the ocean's uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated through human activities by increasing plankton production through seeding, primarily with the micronutrient iron. However, this technique may not be practical at a large scale. Ocean oxygen depletion and resultant methane production (caused by the excess production remineralising at depth) is one potential drawback.
Phytoplankton absorb energy from the Sun and nutrients from the water to produce their own nourishment or energy. In the process of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release molecular oxygen (O2) into the water as a waste biproduct. It is estimated that about 50% of the world's oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis. The rest is produced via photosynthesis on land by plants. Furthermore, phytoplankton photosynthesis has controlled the atmospheric CO2/O2 balance since the early Precambrian Eon.
The growth of phytoplankton populations is dependent on light levels and nutrient availability. The chief factor limiting growth varies from region to region in the world's oceans. On a broad scale, growth of phytoplankton in the oligotrophic tropical and subtropical gyres is generally limited by nutrient supply, while light often limits phytoplankton growth in subarctic gyres. Environmental variability at multiple scales influences the nutrient and light available for phytoplankton, and as these organisms form the base of the marine food web, this variability in phytoplankton growth influences higher trophic levels. For example, at interannual scales phytoplankton levels temporarily plummet during El Niño periods, influencing populations of zooplankton, fishes, sea birds, and marine mammals.
The effects of anthropogenic warming on the global population of phytoplankton is an area of active research. Changes in the vertical stratification of the water column, the rate of temperature-dependent biological reactions, and the atmospheric supply of nutrients are expected to have important impacts on future phytoplankton productivity. Additionally, changes in the mortality of phytoplankton due to rates of zooplankton grazing may be significant.
Freshly hatched fish larvae are also plankton for a few days, as long as it takes before they can swim against currents.
Copepod from Antarctica, a translucent ovoid animal with two long antennae
Herring larva imaged in situ in the typical oblique swimming position with the remains of the yolk and the long gut visible in the transparent animal
Siphonophora – the "conveyor belt" of the upgrowing larvae and the ovarium can be seen
Antarctic krill, probably the largest biomass of a single species on the planet
Tomopteris is a genus of marine planktonic polychaete
Microzooplankton, the major grazers of the plankton: two dinoflagellates and a tintinnid ciliate).
Importance to fish
Zooplankton are the initial prey item for almost all fish larvae as they switch from their yolk sacs to external feeding. Fish rely on the density and distribution of zooplankton to match that of new larvae, which can otherwise starve. Natural factors (e.g., current variations) and man-made factors (e.g. river dams) can strongly affect zooplankton, which can in turn strongly affect larval survival, and therefore breeding success.
The importance of both phytoplankton and zooplankton is also well-recognized in extensive and semi-intensive pond fish farming. Plankton population based pond management strategies for fish rearing have been practised by traditional fish farmers for decades, illustrating the importance of plankton even in man-made environments.
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