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Meet the Plankton

Meet the Plankton, sculpture by Ellen Woodbury

“Meet the Plankton” is a stone sculpture monument to the microscopic plants and animals that inhabit a murky drop of seawater. It is a humble celebration of life on earth; without plankton we could not exist.


I enjoy watching NOVA, a PBS science series on TV. In October 2021, NOVA aired a program called “Arctic Drift”, a winter research voyage to the Arctic Circle by a group of international climate scientists. Their goal was to measure exactly how the Arctic is changing as a result of climate change. Part of the program revealed the immense activity of plankton beneath 3 feet of ice in the Arctic Ocean. After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about the importance of plankton. I felt a sculpture was appropriate.

Generally Speaking

The word plankton comes from the Greek word planktos, meaning drifter. Phyto- comes from the Greek word phyton, meaning plant. Zoo- comes from the Greek word zoon, meaning animal. Thus, we have phytoplankton—the plants, and zooplankton—the animals.

Plankton live in the sunlight zone in bodies of water, which extends down about 650 feet from the surface. The more murky and cloudy the water, the more plankton there are living in it.

The Drifters

Plankton live in both fresh and salt water. They are unable to propel themselves through the water, so they drift on the currents. There are many thousands of species of plankton, many of which are microscopic. Some are very large, like jellyfish, but still considered plankton because they drift. Scientists speculate that there are thousands of species of plankton yet to be discovered.

Meet the Plankton, Phyto, sculpture by Ellen Woodbury
“Meet the Plankton”, phytoplankton view. Photo by Mel Schockner.

Phytoplankton-the Plants

Phytoplankton use photosynthesis to convert sunlight into energy, their food, similar to plants on land. They are the foundation of the global food chain, and also provide one half of the oxygen on our planet–oxygen is a byproduct of the process of photosynthesis. Plants that grow on land provide the other half of the earth’s oxygen. Phytoplankton absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere similar to plants that live on land.

Meet the Plankton, phytoplankton, sculpture by Ellen Woodbury
Phytoplankton detail. Photo by Mel Schockner.

Zooplankton-the Animals

Zooplankton are the second foundation ingredients in our global food chain. They eat phytoplankton and other zooplankton, and are eaten by fish, who are eaten by bigger fish, and on up the food chain. Large marine animals like blue whales, manta rays, some seals, and some sea birds are primarily plankton eaters. Blue whales daily eat 4 tons of krill, a large shrimp-like zooplankton.

Meet the Plankton, zooplankton, sculpture by Ellen Woodbury
Zooplankton detail. Photo by Mel Schockner.

Sensitivity to Rising Temperatures

All life on earth is sensitive to the changing temperatures caused by man-made climate change, even plankton. Bodies of water heat up due to rising water and air temperatures, and the balance of compounds in a body of water can be upset by toxic run-off from chemicals and air pollution. This causes algal blooms called red tides, too much algae (algae is a form of plankton), which are toxic to fish. Animals and humans who eat the poisoned fish get sick.

Rising water temperatures kill off some plankton populations because the water is too warm. That means we are killing off part of our food chain foundation. Rising water temperatures also change water currents, which in turn change weather patterns. We are all inextricably connected in a global web of life.

Plankton Thoughts

I haven’t really thought about plankton in years, probably not since studying them in high school biology. They seemed obliquely obscure to my daily life. Now I begin to see those gazillions of microscopic plants and animals in all their single-celled magnificence. Recognition of their importance is a humbling experience and also a cause for celebration. Thank goodness they are there, supporting us. Plankton do need a monument, and now they have one.

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Meet the Plankton

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