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Plankton species diversity
Diverse assemblages consist of unicellular and multicellular organisms with different sizes, shapes, feeding strategies, ecological functions, life cycle characteristics, and environmental sensitivities.
Courtesy of Christian Sardet/CNRS/Tara expeditions Plankton species diversity.jpg
Plankton species diversity
Diverse assemblages consist of unicellular and multicellular organisms with different sizes, shapes, feeding strategies, ecological functions, life cycle characteristics, and environmental sensitivities.
Courtesy of Christian Sardet/CNRS/Tara expeditions

Plankton are the diverse collection of organisms that live in large bodies of water and are unable to swim against a current. [2] The individual organisms constituting plankton are called plankters. [3] They provide a crucial source of food to many small and large aquatic organisms, such as bivalves, fish and whales.


Planktonic organisms include bacteria, archaea, algae, protozoa and drifting or floating animals that inhabit—for example—the pelagic zone of oceans, seas, or bodies of fresh water. Essentially, plankton are defined by their ecological niche rather than any phylogenetic or taxonomic classification.

Though many planktonic species are microscopic in size, plankton includes organisms over a wide range of sizes, including large organisms such as jellyfish. [4] Technically the term does not include organisms on the surface of the water, which are called pleuston —or those that swim actively in the water, which are called nekton .


Some marine diatoms--a key phytoplankton group Diatoms through the microscope.jpg
Some marine diatoms—a key phytoplankton group

The name plankton is derived from the Greek adjective πλαγκτός (planktos), meaning errant , and by extension, wanderer or drifter, [5] and was coined by Victor Hensen in 1887. [6] [7] While some forms are capable of independent movement and can swim hundreds of meters vertically in a single day (a behavior called diel vertical migration), their horizontal position is primarily determined by the surrounding water movement, and plankton typically flow with ocean currents. This is in contrast to nekton organisms, such as fish, squid and marine mammals, which can swim against the ambient flow and control their position in the environment.

Within the plankton, holoplankton spend their entire life cycle as plankton (e.g. most algae, copepods, salps, and some jellyfish). By contrast, meroplankton are only planktic for part of their lives (usually the larval stage), and then graduate to either a nektic (swimming) or benthic (sea floor) existence. Examples of meroplankton include the larvae of sea urchins, starfish, crustaceans, marine worms, and most fish. [8]

The amount and distribution of plankton depends on available nutrients, the state of water and a large amount of other plankton. [9]

The study of plankton is termed planktology and a planktonic individual is referred to as a plankter. [10] The adjective planktonic is widely used in both the scientific and popular literature, and is a generally accepted term. However, from the standpoint of prescriptive grammar, the less-commonly used planktic is more strictly the correct adjective. When deriving English words from their Greek or Latin roots, the gender-specific ending (in this case, "-on" which indicates the word is neuter) is normally dropped, using only the root of the word in the derivation. [11]

Trophic groups

An amphipod (Hyperia macrocephala) Hyperia.jpg
An amphipod (Hyperia macrocephala)

Plankton are primarily divided into broad functional (or trophic level) groups:

Recognition of the importance of mixotrophy as an ecological strategy is increasing, [16] as well as the wider role this may play in marine biogeochemistry. [17] Studies have shown that mixotrophs are much more important for the marine ecology than previously assumed, and comprise more than half of all microscopic plankton. [18] [19] Their presence act as a buffer that prevents the collapse of ecosystems during times with little to no light. [20]

Size groups

Macroplankton: a Janthina janthina snail (with bubble float) cast up onto a beach in Maui Janthina.jpg
Macroplankton: a Janthina janthina snail (with bubble float) cast up onto a beach in Maui

Plankton are also often described in terms of size. [21] Usually the following divisions are used:

GroupSize range
Megaplankton> 20 cm metazoans; e.g. jellyfish; ctenophores; salps and pyrosomes (pelagic Tunicata); Cephalopoda; Amphipoda
Macroplankton2→20 cm metazoans; e.g. Pteropods; Chaetognaths; Euphausiacea (krill); Medusae; ctenophores; salps, doliolids and pyrosomes (pelagic Tunicata); Cephalopoda; Janthinidae (one family of gastropods); Amphipoda
Mesoplankton0.2→20 mm metazoans; e.g. copepods; Medusae; Cladocera; Ostracoda; Chaetognaths; Pteropods; Tunicata
Microplankton20→200 µm large eukaryotic protists; most phytoplankton; Protozoa Foraminifera; tintinnids; other ciliates; Rotifera; juvenile metazoans - Crustacea (copepod nauplii)
Nanoplankton2→20 µmsmall eukaryotic protists; Small Diatoms; Small Flagellates; Pyrrophyta; Chrysophyta; Chlorophyta; Xanthophyta
Picoplankton 0.2→2 µmsmall eukaryotic protists; bacteria; Chrysophyta
Femtoplankton< 0.2 µm marine viruses

However, some of these terms may be used with very different boundaries, especially on the larger end. The existence and importance of nano- and even smaller plankton was only discovered during the 1980s, but they are thought to make up the largest proportion of all plankton in number and diversity.

The microplankton and smaller groups are microorganisms and operate at low Reynolds numbers, where the viscosity of water is much more important than its mass or inertia. [22]


World concentrations of surface ocean chlorophyll as viewed by satellite during the northern spring, averaged from 1998 to 2004. Chlorophyll is a marker for the distribution and abundance of phytoplankton. Plankton satellite image.jpg
World concentrations of surface ocean chlorophyll as viewed by satellite during the northern spring, averaged from 1998 to 2004. Chlorophyll is a marker for the distribution and abundance of phytoplankton.

Plankton inhabit oceans, seas, lakes, ponds. Local abundance varies horizontally, vertically and seasonally. The primary cause of this variability is the availability of light. All plankton ecosystems are driven by the input of solar energy (but see chemosynthesis), confining primary production to surface waters, and to geographical regions and seasons having abundant light.

A secondary variable is nutrient availability. Although large areas of the tropical and sub-tropical oceans have abundant light, they experience relatively low primary production because they offer limited nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate and silicate. This results from large-scale ocean circulation and water column stratification. In such regions, primary production usually occurs at greater depth, although at a reduced level (because of reduced light).

Despite significant macronutrient concentrations, some ocean regions are unproductive (so-called HNLC regions). [23] The micronutrient iron is deficient in these regions, and adding it can lead to the formation of phytoplankton blooms. [24] Iron primarily reaches the ocean through the deposition of dust on the sea surface. Paradoxically, oceanic areas adjacent to unproductive, arid land thus typically have abundant phytoplankton (e.g., the eastern Atlantic Ocean, where trade winds bring dust from the Sahara Desert in north Africa).

While plankton are most abundant in surface waters, they live throughout the water column. At depths where no primary production occurs, zooplankton and bacterioplankton instead consume organic material sinking from more productive surface waters above. This flux of sinking material, so-called marine snow, can be especially high following the termination of spring blooms.

The local distribution of plankton can be affected by wind-driven Langmuir circulation and the biological effects of this physical process.

Ecological significance

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. [25]

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. [26] [27] [28] [29] In 2019, a study indicated that at current rates of seawater acidification, we could see Antarctic phytoplanktons smaller and less effective at storing carbon before the end of the century. [30]

It might be possible to increase the ocean's uptake of carbon dioxide (CO
) 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. [31] [32]

Oxygen production

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 (O
) into the water as a waste byproduct. It is estimated that about 50% of the world's oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis. [33] The rest is produced via photosynthesis on land by plants. [33] Furthermore, phytoplankton photosynthesis has controlled the atmospheric CO
balance since the early Precambrian Eon. [34]

Biomass variability

Amphipod with curved exoskeleton and two long and two short antennae Amphipodredkils.jpg
Amphipod with curved exoskeleton and two long and two short antennae

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. [35] 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.

Plankton diversity

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, ocean acidification, rising temperatures) 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.

See also

Related Research Articles

Phytoplankton Autotrophic members of the plankton ecosystem

Phytoplankton are the autotrophic (self-feeding) components of the plankton community and a key part of oceans, seas and freshwater basin ecosystems. The name comes from the Greek words φυτόν (phyton), meaning "plant", and πλαγκτός (planktos), meaning "wanderer" or "drifter". Most phytoplankton are too small to be individually seen with the unaided eye. However, when present in high enough numbers, some varieties may be noticeable as colored patches on the water surface due to the presence of chlorophyll within their cells and accessory pigments in some species. About 1% of the global biomass is due to phytoplankton.

Zooplankton Heterotrophic protistan or metazoan members of the plankton ecosystem

Zooplankton are heterotrophic plankton. Plankton are organisms drifting in oceans, seas, and bodies of fresh water. The word zooplankton is derived from the Greek zoon (ζῴον), meaning "animal", and planktos (πλαγκτός), meaning "wanderer" or "drifter". Individual zooplankton are usually microscopic, but some are larger and visible to the naked eye.

Biological pump The oceans biologically driven sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere to the ocean interior and seafloor

The biological pump, in its simplest form, is the ocean's biologically driven sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere to the ocean interior and seafloor sediments. It is the part of the oceanic carbon cycle responsible for the cycling of organic matter formed mainly by phytoplankton during photosynthesis (soft-tissue pump), as well as the cycling of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) formed into shells by certain organisms such as plankton and mollusks (carbonate pump).

The mesopelagiczone, also known as the middle pelagic or twilight zone, is the part of the pelagic zone that lies between the photic epipelagic and the aphotic bathypelagic zones. It is defined by light, and begins at the depth where only 1% of incident light reaches and ends where there is no light; the depths of this zone are between approximately 200 to 1000 meters below the ocean surface. It hosts a diverse biological community that includes bristlemouths, blobfish, bioluminescent jellyfish, giant squid, and a myriad of other unique organisms adapted to live in a low-light environment. It has long captivated the imagination of scientists, artists and writers; deep sea creatures are prominent in popular culture, particularly as horror movie villains.

<i>Emiliania huxleyi</i> Species of alga

Emiliania huxleyi is a species of coccolithophore found in almost all ocean ecosystems from the equator to sub-polar regions, and from nutrient rich upwelling zones to nutrient poor oligotrophic waters. It is one of thousands of different photosynthetic plankton that freely drift in the euphotic zone of the ocean, forming the basis of virtually all marine food webs. It is studied for the extensive blooms it forms in nutrient-depleted waters after the reformation of the summer thermocline. Like other coccolithophores, E. huxleyi is a single-celled phytoplankton covered with uniquely ornamented calcite disks called coccoliths. Individual coccoliths are abundant in marine sediments although complete coccospheres are more unusual. In the case of E. huxleyi, not only the shell, but also the soft part of the organism may be recorded in sediments. It produces a group of chemical compounds that are very resistant to decomposition. These chemical compounds, known as alkenones, can be found in marine sediments long after other soft parts of the organisms have decomposed. Alkenones are most commonly used by earth scientists as a means to estimate past sea surface temperatures.

High-nutrient, low-chlorophyll (HNLC) regions are regions of the ocean where the abundance of phytoplankton is low and fairly constant despite the availability of macronutrients. Phytoplankton rely on a suite of nutrients for cellular function. Macronutrients are generally available in higher quantities in surface ocean waters, and are the typical components of common garden fertilizers. Micronutrients are generally available in lower quantities and include trace metals. Macronutrients are typically available in millimolar concentrations, while micronutrients are generally available in micro- to nanomolar concentrations. In general, nitrogen tends to be a limiting ocean nutrient, but in HNLC regions it is never significantly depleted. Instead, these regions tend to be limited by low concentrations of metabolizable iron. Iron is a critical phytoplankton micronutrient necessary for enzyme catalysis and electron transport.

f-ratio In oceanic biogeochemistry, the fraction of total primary production fuelled by nitrate

In oceanic biogeochemistry, the f-ratio is the fraction of total primary production fuelled by nitrate. The ratio was originally defined by Richard Eppley and Bruce Peterson in one of the first papers estimating global oceanic production. This fraction was originally believed significant because it appeared to directly relate to the sinking (export) flux of organic marine snow from the surface ocean by the biological pump. However, this interpretation relied on the assumption of a strong depth-partitioning of a parallel process, nitrification, that more recent measurements has questioned.

Picoplankton fraction of plankton composed by cells between 0.2 and 2 μm that can be prokaryotic or eukaryotic and phototrophs or heterotrophs

Picoplankton is the fraction of plankton composed by cells between 0.2 and 2 μm that can be either prokaryotic and eukaryotic phototrophs and heterotrophs:

Diel vertical migration (DVM), also known as diurnal vertical migration, is a pattern of movement used by some organisms, such as copepods, living in the ocean and in lakes. The migration occurs when organisms move up to the epipelagic zone at night and return to the mesopelagic zone of the oceans or to the hypolimnion zone of lakes during the day. The word diel comes from the Latin dies day, and means a 24-hour period. In terms of biomass, it is the greatest migration in the world. It is not restricted to any one taxon as examples are known from crustaceans (copepods), molluscs (squid), and ray-finned fishes (trout). Various stimuli are responsible for this phenomenon, the most prominent being response to changes in light intensity, though evidence suggests that biological clocks are an underlying stimulus as well. The phenomenon may arise for a number of reasons, though it is most typically to access food and avoid predators. While this mass migration is generally nocturnal, with the animals ascending from the depths at nightfall and descending at sunrise, the timing can be altered in response to the different cues and stimuli that trigger it. Some unusual events impact vertical migration: DVM is absent during the midnight sun in Arctic regions and vertical migration can occur suddenly during a solar eclipse.

Microbial loop Mikrobial loop

The microbial loop describes a trophic pathway in the marine microbial food web where dissolved organic carbon (DOC) is returned to higher trophic levels via its incorporation into bacterial biomass, and then coupled with the classic food chain formed by phytoplankton-zooplankton-nekton. The term microbial loop was coined by Farooq Azam and Tom Fenchel et al. to include the role played by bacteria in the carbon and nutrient cycles of the marine environment.


Nanophytoplankton are particularly small phytoplankton with sizes between 2 and 20 µm. They are the autotrophic part of nanoplankton. Like other phytoplankton, nanophytoplankton are microscopic organisms that obtain energy through the process of photosynthesis and must therefore live in the upper sunlit layer of ocean or other bodies of water. These microscopic free-floating organisms, including algae, and cyanobacteria, fix large amounts of carbon which would otherwise be released as carbon dioxide.. The term nanophytoplankton is derived from the far more widely used term nannoplankton/nanoplankton.

Marine snow Shower of mostly organic detritus falling from the upper layers of the water column

In the deep ocean, marine snow is a continuous shower of mostly organic detritus falling from the upper layers of the water column. It is a significant means of exporting energy from the light-rich photic zone to the aphotic zone below which is referred to as the biological pump. Export production is the amount of organic matter produced in the ocean by primary production that is not recycled (remineralised) before it sinks into the aphotic zone. Because of the role of export production in the ocean's biological pump, it is typically measured in units of carbon .The term was first coined by the explorer William Beebe as he observed it from his bathysphere. As the origin of marine snow lies in activities within the productive photic zone, the prevalence of marine snow changes with seasonal fluctuations in photosynthetic activity and ocean currents. Marine snow can be an important food source for organisms living in the aphotic zone, particularly for organisms which live very deep in the water column.

Bacterioplankton refers to the bacterial component of the plankton that drifts in the water column. The name comes from the Ancient Greek word πλανκτος, meaning "wanderer" or "drifter", and bacterium, a Latin term coined in the 19th century by Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg. They are found in both seawater and freshwater.

Ecosystem of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre The largest contiguous ecosystem on earth and a major circulating system of ocean currents

The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) is the largest contiguous ecosystem on earth. In oceanography, a subtropical gyre is a ring-like system of ocean currents rotating clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere caused by the Coriolis Effect. They generally form in large open ocean areas that lie between land masses.

Marine microorganisms Any life form too small for the naked human eye to see that lives in a marine environment

Marine microorganisms are defined by their habitat as the microorganisms living in a marine environment, that is, in the saltwater of a sea or ocean or the brackish water of a coastal estuary. A microorganism is any microscopic living organism, that is, any life form too small for the naked human eye to really see, needing a microscope. Microorganisms are very diverse. They can be single-celled or multicellular and include all bacteria and archaea and most protozoa, as well as some species of fungi, algae, and certain microscopic animals, such as rotifers and copepods. Many macroscopic animals and plants have microscopic juvenile stages. Some microbiologists also classify biologically active entities such as viruses and viroids as microorganisms, but others consider these as nonliving.

Mycoplankton are saprotropic members of the plankton communities of marine and freshwater ecosystems. They are composed of filamentous free-living fungi and yeasts that are associated with planktonic particles or phytoplankton. Similar to bacterioplankton, these aquatic fungi play a significant role in heterotrophic mineralization and nutrient cycling. Mycoplankton can be up to 20 mm in diameter and over 50 mm in length.

Marine biogeochemical cycles

Marine biogeochemical cycles are biogeochemical cycles that that occur within marine environments, that is, in the saltwater of seas or oceans or the brackish water of coastal estuaries. These biogeochemical cycles are the pathways chemical substances and elements move through within the marine environment. In addition, substances and elements can be imported into or exported from the marine environment. These imports and exports can occur as exchanges with the atmosphere above, the ocean floor below, or as runoff from the land.

Marine food web

Compared to terrestrial environments, marine environments have biomass pyramids which are inverted at the base. In particular, the biomass of consumers is larger than the biomass of primary producers. This happens because the ocean's primary producers are tiny phytoplankton which grow and reproduce rapidly, so a small mass can have a fast rate of primary production. In contrast, terrestrial primary producers, such as mature forests, grow and reproduce slowly, so a much larger mass is needed to achieve the same rate of primary production.

Marine primary production

Marine primary production is the chemical synthesis in the ocean of organic compounds from atmospheric or dissolved carbon dioxide. It principally occurs through the process of photosynthesis, which uses light as its source of energy, but it also occurs through chemosynthesis, which uses the oxidation or reduction of inorganic chemical compounds as its source of energy. Almost all life on Earth relies directly or indirectly on primary production. The organisms responsible for primary production are called primary producers or autotrophs.

Benthic-pelagic coupling are processes that connect the benthic zone and the pelagic zone through the exchange of energy, mass, or nutrients. These processes play a prominent role in both freshwater and marine ecosystems and are influenced by a number of chemical, biological, and physical forces that are crucial to functions from nutrient cycling to energy transfer in food webs.


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Further reading