Skip to main content
Email Print Share

Imagine That! -- "What Ocean Plankton Do"

Imagine That!
Audio Play Audio

Imagine That! -- "What Ocean Plankton Do"

Credit: NSF/Finger Lakes Productions International

Audio Transcript:

Treading water for a couple seconds can be fun. Five minutes can be painful. But what if you had to do it...your whole life?

Imagine That!

Zooplankton are lifelong water treaders. Only about a millimeter in size, they tell us a lot about the oceans where they live, like where whales and fish that feed on them might be, and what currents are doing. Scientists have known for a long time that zooplankton are almost always found in clusters. But it was a big mystery how these tiny creatures managed to stay in one location despite intense oceanic currents. And with no good way to watch their underwater behavior, the mystery remained.

Until recently, that is. Scientist Jules Jaffe of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography made some enormous...strokes in solving the mystery of zooplankton, with the development of his 3-D imaging system, "Fish TV." Hooked up to a tripod on the coastal floor of the red sea, it monitors clusters of the tiny creatures and presents the true picture. Turns out zooplankton are capable of staying at a constant depth with great precision-sometimes "treadmilling" against some pretty vicious vertical currents.

Figuring out how these little guys move tells scientists a ton about ocean organisms' depth sensors, and how creatures big and small function so swimmingly in those deep waters. I'm Eric Phillips.

"Imagine That!" covers projects funded by the U.S. government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at

General Restrictions:
Images and other media in the National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery are available for use in print and electronic material by NSF employees, members of the media, university staff, teachers and the general public. All media in the gallery are intended for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use only.

Images credited to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, are in the public domain. The images were created by employees of the United States Government as part of their official duties or prepared by contractors as "works for hire" for NSF. You may freely use NSF-credited images and, at your discretion, credit NSF with a "Courtesy: National Science Foundation" notation. Additional information about general usage can be found in Conditions.