A Cupful of Smelly Gooey Phytoplankton

It was the color of the ocean from space that brought us here. We knew it was a gamble, a dogleg away from our main sampling plan. But satellites were telling us that phytoplankton were flourishing here, over deep water, where no one could explain it and no one had ever been to study it before.

To come here and still get the rest of our work done would require long shifts at the pumps and filters and spectrophotometers and microscopes. But it might turn up something unexpected. And I guess that’s why these people are scientists. They are drawn toward the unknown.

When we got here the water, which is normally blue in the open ocean, was green with phytoplankton. The first net over the side brought up cloudy water that people described as smelling like broccoli, seaweed, sulfur, or brussels sprouts. To me it was briny and sharp and smelled like freshly shucked oysters. That’s the smell of the ocean—a gas called dimethyl sulfide—and it meant we had stumbled on a different kind of phytoplankton bloom. Read on through the slideshow to find out more about our day:

Throughout the Ross Sea, the two major kinds of phytoplankton are Phaeocystis and diatoms. But wherever blooms happen, they tend to be made up mostly of one of these types, with far fewer of the other. Before today, our expedition had found blooms dominated by diatoms. This is the first mostly Phaeocystis bloom we have seen.

Scientists aren’t sure why the two types don’t occur in more equal proportions in all blooms. Some think that Phaeocystis blooms earlier, beating out the diatoms but requiring more iron, and perhaps performing better in low light. Then, later in the summer when less iron is available and there’s more sunlight, the diatoms take over. But these ideas have not been thoroughly researched yet.

The Phaeocystis bloom we found will make an interesting comparison to the diatom blooms we’ve been finding. It’s happening at the same time, in the same light conditions as the diatom blooms. And the iron measurements Dr. Chris Measures and Dr. Lam are making will tell the scientists whether this Phaeocystis bloom has more iron in it than the diatom blooms. Perhaps they’ll find enough new information that they’ll come back and test a new hypothesis… and make some more keepsake cups.

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About Hugh Powell

Hugh is a staff writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is on special assignment with the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. He has previously written for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

16 Responses to “A Cupful of Smelly Gooey Phytoplankton”

  1. I love a “styrocast”! I have one from the SSV Robert C. Seamans off of Hawaii. Sadly we didn’t do one on the R/V Knorr.

    Is the phytoplankton team growing Phaeocystis in any of the culture experiments?

    If collecting from this bloom, do you plan to grow the assemblage as it is (diatoms and Phaeocystis together) or isolate them and grow them separately?

    • Adam says: We have not collected plankton from the blooms, as there are tons of paperwork to import the plankton through NZ to the states and it is logistically difficult to get them back alive. The incubations are essentially collections from the bloom and we will be able to tell if certain conditions stimulate one group vs another.

  2. Jasmine from Sea Girt school February 3, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Out of all the plankton you have seen in Antartica, which one is your favortie? Why?

    • Hi Jasmine, My favorite plankton so far might be Corethron, the delicate cylinder with the ring of spikes coming off each end. It looks kind of like it’s wearing a grass skirt and a headdress (see Jan 26 post for photos). I also like Phaeocystis, partly because it forms neat spherical colonies that look like beachballs under the microscope (see Feb 3 post), and partly because the biologists complain about it so much (it clogs up their filters and smells bad), so I feel sorry for it.

  3. Kelli from Sea Girt School February 3, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    How thick was the phytoplankton?

    • Elizabeth Halliday says: ‘It was murky and green in the water. When we tried to put it through our filters, it was really thick and mucus. It was like having a big, stinky sneeze on the filters.’

  4. Ms. Dunbar's 6th grade class February 3, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    What a great day! We’re so excited that you were there ~ and able to get to the perfect place at the right time. Though you didn’t hear it ~ we gave you a big cheer from Jersey! We thought you were working REALLY hard before, so we can’t even imagine what it’s like now. Know we’re pulling for you!

  5. hey i was wondering how about the dinoflagellate, are there any other chloroplast thieves in the sea?, and i probably would of painted a penguin too, probably a chinstrap 😀

    • Dr. Scott Fay answered this question. He said that many creatures steal chloroplasts away from other organisms. One of the most dramatic examples is a sea slug that steals chloroplasts and stores them along its back, where they continue to produce food for the slug. It’s so well developed that the slugs have actually moved some of the genes that control the chloroplasts into their own DNA.

  6. Zachary from Holy Family School February 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Cups! Why do the keepsake cups look rough all over? Are they hard?

    • Hi Zachary, good question. Next time you see a styrofoam cup, take a close look at it—you’ll see it’s made of little pellets of air-filled styrofoam all stuck together. When we sent the cups down to the bottom of the sea, the great pressure at depth squeezed most of the air out of the styrofoam. That’s why the cups got so much smaller, and why their surface looks rough and pebbly now.

  7. Mrs. Worth's 7th Grade Class February 7, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    We learned that there are many types of plankton found in the ocean. Is there one kind of plankton that is more important than the others in regards to the marine food web? Do certain varieties consume more carbon dioxide or produce more oxygen than others?

  8. So, yeah. I figured it would be cool if I wrote a comment about this story, so… AVOCADO JUICE!!! Just kidding. My real comment is Diotoms sound cool, and I want to learn more about them.

  9. Hey Hugh, how did Chris get the underwater shot of the net? Are there any scuba divers onboard, either for ship maintenance or for research?

    • Hi Owen. Chris has a long pole that he attaches his camera to when he takes those shots. He puts his camera on auto-fire mode so it takes a shot every second, and he just sees what he gets when it comes back up. There are recreational scuba divers aboard, but I don’t think it’s part of the ship’s normal operations—maintenance happens at the dock. There are plenty of marine biologists who do dive in Antarctica. They typically drag a portable shelter out onto the ice, cut a hole through the roughly 6 feet of ice, and jump in. The water is about 28°F.

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