Careers in Marine Science: Plankton--Uncharismatic Microfauna


Setting: The underground cavern of the evil genus Dr. Cetacea. The people wailed and moaned. Dr. Cetacea would soon take over the world. There was nobody alive with the bravery, might, and intelligence to stop him. Or was there? "Not so fast whale-boy!" The door flies open! The plankton biologist has arrived to save the world. ...

Not a likely scenario for a Hollywood feature film. If it were up to Hollywood, all good-hearted marine biologists would study the lovable cetaceans, better known to you and I as whales. A case in point: When George Costanza masqueraded as a marine biologist on an episode of Seinfeld, he claimed to be studying whales.

I receive many e-mails from school kids insisting that they want to be marine biologist ... and work with whales. I tell them that academia is a long and difficult path to take and that you must be dedicated. I tell them I just finished Grade 25 as a graduate student. And that many more marine scientists study plankton than whales, yet they don't seem to understand. It is true that plankton are not the most glamorous of study organisms. Don't get me wrong, I really think that plankton are extremely interesting--but they aren't whales. Plankton lack the charisma of these megafauna. People often ask me what plankton are, and once we get beyond the initial definition, they then want to know if they are plants or animals. When I tell them that zooplankton are animals and phytoplankton are plants, they are usually happy to leave it at that. When I tell them that some of the phytoplankton are not really plants (autotrophs), in that they don't use the sun's energy to make food, they start to fidget. And if I mention (terrible me!) that whole classes of plankton (ciliates and other protozoans for instance) can be either autotrophic or heterotrophic, and sometimes both at the same time, the questions cease.

That's the thing about plankton, they often cross many of the typical boundaries that scientists have set up: Plant-animal, grazer-carnivore, and autotroph-heterotroph. Researchers interested in modeling these guys often have to stick their fingers in their ears when other scientists bring up switching behaviors in feeding or cannibalism--"La La La, I'm not listening. ..." This is one reason why plankton ecology is so interesting-everything is just a big mishmash.

Studying plankton can be fun, exciting, and entertaining. Well maybe not fun, nor exciting exactly for that matter, and I suppose that their entertainment value is subject to challenge. But, they are interesting--they are that. You might not believe it, but in fact they are a truly fascinating group of creatures. (I'm not beginning to sound desperate am I?) Well, I am feeling generous so feel free to withhold your enthusiasm--you might have your apathy with regard to plankton changed to mere moderate indifference by the end of the article.

Interesting Facts About Plankton

Plankton comprise the most abundant organisms on our planet (the ocean is a real big place). Zooplankton, and copepods to be even more specific, are certainly the most abundant in metazoans on our planet. Some are utterly beautiful--the iridescent ctenophores, or the intricate glass skeletons of radiolarians and diatoms, rarely fail to impress. Zooplankton in particular are immensely fun to watch under the microscope--more so when they aren't dead, though it is a chore if you have to handle the live ones.

For example, dinoflagellates can sustain swimming speeds of 10 body lengths per second, and copepod escape responses have been clocked at 35 cm per second. This is rather phenomenal considering that they exist at spatial scales dominated by viscosity. The equivalent physical feat is for us to swim the 100-meter freestyle in 5 seconds, in a pool of honey. Impressed yet? Well how about some species of copepods that vertically migrate 500 meters or more every morning and night? Thank goodness the vast majority of my microscope work was spent on cladocerans (water fleas are a paddleboat compared to the copepod racing yacht).

I encourage any of you out there who believe that plankton are simply passive drifters in the water column to come here and I will sit you down with petri dish and pipette and see if you can try to capture one of the little "creatures." (I usually refer to them with more colorful words at the time.) You can be like the Karate Kid trying to capture a fly with a pair of chopsticks. This is made even more fun (there is that word again) when you have to do this on a ship rolling 15 degrees on either side. Did I mention nausea yet?

Yes, let's talk about fieldwork.

During my Ph.D. research in biological oceanography at the University of Guelph, I noticed one thing in particular about taking initiative in your own research. Fieldwork is infinitely more satisfying (and enjoyable) when you get to plan it yourself. The problem is that most grad students have supervisors who give helpful suggestions like: "You should take the boat out every 3 hours and do a vertical net haul ... for 3 days," or "Grad students are young and don't get sleepy, so you won't mind dosing the incubations with the radioactive isotopes during the 3 a.m. shift." They might also arrange a month in the tropics during the winter but plunk you down in the middle of nowhere next to a polluted harbor, scheduling only one day off. This is the sort of thing that generally ends up with you repetitively asking in mental soliloquy, "Why am I doing this?" or just "Aghh!!" Clearly, there has to be some sort of inner drive for a person to drag their tortured soul through the maze of graduate school research experience (idolized only by Lisa Simpson and her Malibu Stacey "Grad Student Glamour Kit"--the contents of which are a hot topic of contention on the PhinisheD list).

Relief is in sight. In these days of modern oceanography, data collection can be made much more enjoyable by new technology. Optical, video, and holographic (trés cool) plankton recorders, acoustics, and other in situ probes that measure everything from temperature to nutrients have revolutionized the tedium of data collection. Put the probe in the water (don't forget to turn it on first), start the data-logger, and sit in the sun (oh, I mean work on your thesis) for a couple of hours.

During the 1889 Challenger expedition, Victor Hensen (who coined the term 'plankton') systematically collected vast numbers of plankton samples with nets across the globe. These were separated into species and enumerated. His archnemesis and co-planktologist, Ernst Haeckel, commented that the enormous labor of counting individual plankton had potential for "the ruin of mind and body." I like that. He would have been good to work for ... he wouldn't even want to study whales.

Warren Currie is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut's Department of Marine Sciences developing an ecological model of eutrophication within shallow coastal estuaries, but he continues his Ph.D. research on the scaling relationships of zooplankton distributions.

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