A couple weeks ago this photo was going viral with the headline “A Single Drop of Seawater, Magnified 25 Times”:
This was one of this amazing internet times where there is a total disconnect between people who know about zooplankton and everyone else. Everyone else was having a “My God, it’s full of stars” moment.
Meanwhile, I was bemused. Because this is a pretty standard, even marginally boring, zooplankton sample. I have seen literally thousands of samples (and I am using literally correctly here) that look just like this. There is nothing unusual whatsoever about this picture…except for that it’s based on a misconception.
This is NOT a “drop” of seawater. The ocean is not a thick zooplankton soup, except for in some rare and special circumstances. This is the result of towing a zooplankton net around to concentrate seawater enough to actually look at the zooplankton. Basically, this photo is a swimming-pool amount of ocean concentrated down into about a half-pint of goo.
This is a zooplankton net towing along (a bongo net, which has two nets, specifically). The cod ends are the solid white bits on the right side. That’s where the zooplankton end up.
This is a cod end filled with gooey plankton goodness, ready to be emptied into a bin and preserved:
This is a pint jar of concentrated zooplankton (the center of my life for about 4 years):
When you put all that beige goop under the microscope, you get the “single drop” in the viral photo above. My God, it’s filled with critters! But it’s the critters from a pretty big swathe of ocean, artificially brought together.
So, here’s my question, Did people think this was cool because zooplankton are awesome? I hope so! Because zooplankton ARE awesome! And that makes me happy!
Or did people think this was cool because they mistakenly thought that every drop of ocean was stuffed with zooplankton and were kinda freaked out that chaetognaths (the long wormy things) were going to eat their eyeballs? Because that does not make me happy. Chaetognaths are often around 1/2″-1″ long and wouldn’t fit in a drop of seawater (or in your eyeball) anyway.
Regardless, zooplankton going viral made me realize how much scientists can take for granted – knowing that the ocean is full of hard-to-see and beautiful animals, for example. We need to remember to share that more often.
UPDATE: A commenter on Boing Boing pointed me to this background on the original photo. In short, it was taken off Hawaii in 2006 by David Liittschwager, and was actually collected with a dip net, not a towed net. Here’s a photo of a dip net, though Liittschwager collected at night when far more animals are at the surface.
Also, click through for ID of the plankton in the photo by Scripps professor Mark Ohman, who also happens to have been my Ph.D. advisor. (Zooplankton <3 4-evah!)