World Ocean Census - Extract 21 - Identifying the drifters

23 June 2010

While the typical process of species identification is laborious, for some scientists the Census made their labors much more exciting and efficient. Census taxonomists who study zooplankton, for example, were given a unique opportunity to take the identification process to sea.

Zooplankton are marine animals that drift in the water rather than swim, so they depend upon the vagaries of ocean currents. They typically range in size from 1 millimeter to a few centimeters, although the nearly neutrally buoyant gelatinous zooplankton can grow to many meters (yards) in length.

Census zooplankton taxonomists, who have spent their careers becoming familiar with the morphology of these tiny drifting marine animals, were able to see live specimens firsthand as they were brought on board in fine mesh nets. Ann Bucklin, director of the Marine Science Technology Center of the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and head of the Census’s zooplankton project, explains: “Identifying a new species is perhaps the most exciting thing a taxonomist does, for making sure a species is indeed new is a tough, exacting game for zooplankton. There’s also an enormous sense of excitement looking at samples fresh, alive, that no one has ever seen before.”

Text and images reprinted with permission from World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life by Darlene Trew Crist, Gail Scowcroft and James M. Harding Jr., Firefly Books, 2009

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