In the astonishing world of plankton bright pink micron-sized dinoflagellates looking like spaceships glide slowly over the surface of the sea – beautiful flute-like tintinnids exchange genes temporarily with each other and slender chaetognatha or arrow worms bristle with hairs and become cannibals as they gobble up their relatives.
These and a million other mostly microscopic planktonic species of viruses microbes larvae and eukaryotes are the largely invisible origins of life – the very bottom of the food chain and the enablers of all existence. Together these tiny, single-cell life forms that drift on the upper layer of the oceans produce half our oxygen – act as carbon sinks – influence our weather – and serve as the base of the ocean food web.
Thanks to new photographic techniques derived from medical imagery and the ocean schooner Tara which has spent years plying the oceans collecting plankton – we can now see the astonishing richness of what is known as the ‘drifting world’. It is – says Christian Sardet – co-founder of the Laboratory of Cell Biology at the marine station of Villefranche-sur-Mer – even more extraordinary because this world of plankton represents all branches of the tree of life.