Plankton are so tiny that most of us have never seen them. What an oversight! Their importance is way out of scale to their size! To dramatize their significance the Low Tide Celebration this year honors plankton with “Save the Plankton” shirts, plankton bookmarks, opportunities to see plankton in photographs and under a microscope, and—for a lucky few–chances to win a special set of Phyto cards as prizes for various activities sponsored by several booths. Come to the LTC Welcome booth on Saturday, July 14, 10am to 3pm, at Point Robinson and find out more.
When you ride the ferry or walk a beach, you are in the presence of millions of microscopic beings floating mostly in the upper layers of the water. Some, known as phytoplankton, are able to feed themselves on sunshine and the nutrients in water by photosynthesizing. These microscopic beings have been alive in the world’s oceans for three billion years longer than terrestrial plants, and we can thank them for generating the air we breathe. Even now, the land plants only generate about half our oxygen, while phytoplankton produce the rest in the course of photosynthesis.
During the long ages of plankton life and death–before fir trees and dogs and humans even thought about starting to evolve–the residues of the primordial plankton underwent slow transmutation into oil, which in the tiny wink of time of 150 years has come to be so important to modern humans for transportation and industry.
But more important than that, is their role in the great chain of being. They form the foundation for the food webs in all the world’s oceans and freshwater bodies. Tiny zooplankton feed on the photosynthesizing phytoplankton. Present among the thousands of species of zooplankton are the larval stages of most of Vashon’s shoreline life, from barnacles and limpets to shellfish, crabs, snails, anemones, seastars and fish. These float in the soup of plankton feeding and growing. If they aren’t eaten themselves, they finally settle out onto rock or sand to begin adult life. Little fish become bigger fish able to shelter and feed in more specialized ways. At the upper end of these food chains are humans, herons, orcas, and other top predators. Not to say that some pretty large animals don’t skip the middlemen: baleen whales just feed directly on the tiny plankton-eating krill, a shrimp-like species whose total biomass (almost 380 million tons) is among the largest of all Earth’s creatures.
Scientists are busy studying how plankton influences oxygen levels and sequesters or releases carbon. They are concerned by signs that as ocean water quality deteriorates because of human-made contaminants, higher pH, and rising temperatures, there have been parallel declines in populations of plankton. To protect the world’s plankton, we need to protect the world’s oceans!
To learn more, you and your family can participate in any of several Low Tide Celebration activities and talk to experts like Karlista Rickerson. Watch for “The Plankton Chronicles” at Vashon Theatre. You can also vist youtube and watch the brief but enlightening “The Secret Life of Plankton.” Or Google “Why We Should Thank Plankton.”