Citizen Science

Plankton Portal: Up Close with Microscopic Marine Life

November 11, 2014

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Solmaris rhodoloma aggregation. Image © Jessica Luo / Cowen Lab / Plankton Portal.

What is Plankton Portal? 

A world without plankton.

That might not seem difficult to imagine. It’s likely you don’t think about plankton often.

But the fate of those seemingly inconsequential organisms affects the entire ocean. And you can help. In fact, you might even help make a new discovery.

“If all the plankton in the oceans were to die off, then we would see a catastrophic collapse of life in the oceans,” says Jessica Luo of the Plankton Portal science team.

A loss of plankton would also affect the global carbon cycle and therefore the climate.

And yet, plankton are poorly understood. Their small size, massive numbers, and wide variety make them difficult to study, especially outside of the lab.

Enter Plankton Portal. New imaging systems allow researchers to capture pictures of plankton in their native environment. They are calling on citizen scientists to help them categorize the images for further study.

“Folks have already started finding new things that we have never seen,” Luo notes.

That’s right, you really could make a scientific discovery.

“This project is one of the first of its kind — the first time that we have used crowd-sourcing to analyze plankton samples,” Luo adds. “This is really just the beginning of our being able to harness the power of the crowd to make scientific discoveries about previously under-studied animals in the ocean. We hope that this data can be used to inform our current limited understanding of species distribution and behavior.” 

Why is Plankton Portal Important?

Understanding more about plankton (what kinds, where, and how many?) can tell scientists a lot about ocean health.

“As someone who enjoys living near the ocean, eating seafood, and visiting beaches, I value plankton immensely. They are the bottom of the food chain, the absolute essential food item for a whole variety of organisms, from larval and juvenile fish to baleen whales,” says Luo.

Answering questions about plankton distribution could also lead to better climate models.

“Climate change is happening – so what? How will climate change affect ecosystems, and ecosystem services? Incorporating plankton into climate models is the first step to addressing those kinds of questions for the global oceans,” Luo explains.

Perhaps most importantly, Plankton Portal teaches people about the incredible diversity of plankton and the role of plankton in keeping the oceans and the atmosphere healthy.

Spend some time with this project, and you won’t wonder about the value of plankton any longer.

Physonect siphonophore. Image © Jessica Luo / Cowen Lab / Plankton Portal.
Physonect siphonophore. Image © Jessica Luo / Cowen Lab / Plankton Portal.

“When you look under a microscope at a plankton sample and see all the different bugs crawling around, you get a small sense of the diversity that is in the ocean,” Luo remarks. “But what I never realized was all the different kinds of plankton that aren’t usually caught by nets – at least in their whole form.”

Those hard to catch plankton, primarily zooplankton, are what Plankton Portal scientists are especially keen to study.

Not only are there resources for using Plankton Portal in the classroom, seeing the beauty and diversity of plankton on the website inspires many citizen scientists to learn more.

“Users have gone way above and beyond in their classifications and started learning about the biology and ecology of the organisms we find in Plankton Portal,” Luo explains.

How Do You Get Involved In Plankton Portal?

Plankton Portal is a Zooniverse citizen science project, like Floating Forests or Penguin Watch. If you’ve already signed up for one of those, you can use the same log in information to track your contributions.

You can also visit Plankton Portal and classify images anonymously.

Classifying plankton is surprisingly easy to learn with the help of the Plankton Portal interface, a brief tutorial will have you up and running in about ten minutes.

The images are beautiful and you can help out from anywhere in the world.

Plankton Portal invites you on a voyage into the unknown. Try it yourself or with your family. It could spark a lifelong passion for science and the ocean!

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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