What are Some Types of Plankton?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2018
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Plankton is the name for the trillions of tiny organisms that float in the world's oceans at the pelagic zone, within 656 ft (200 m) from the surface, where there is sufficient light for photosynthesis. Like every other ecosystem in the world, the basis of life in this zone are the photosynthetic bacteria (cyanobacteria), algae, and other autotrophs that soak up the sun's rays and reproduce by using trace amounts of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and silicon from sea water as nutrients to divide and grow. These microorganisms exist in a boom-and-bust pattern, usually twice a year, when nutrients are plentiful and the organisms quickly reproduce.

There are five common levels of classification for these organisms, based on their size: nanoplankton (

Organisms included in this group, in approximate descending order of frequency, include the following:

  • cyanobacteria
  • flagellate protists
  • diatoms
  • rotifers
  • copepods (1 mm crustaceans)
  • arrow worms
  • ostracods (tiny seed-shaped crustaceans)
  • krill
  • tunicates (blob-like filter feeders that are actually primitive chordates)
  • pteropods (planktonic gastropods)
  • jellyfish
  • ctenophores
  • water fleas (crustaceans)
  • pyrosomes (bioluminescent tunicates)
  • cephalopods
  • fish
  • and other small creatures.

At the highest level, rare large animals such as whales occasionally pass through this ecosystem and eat whatever organisms they can find. The combined annual prey of all whales in the world exceeds 100 million tons, which is greater than the total annual human consumption of seafood.


To humans, plankton is only indirectly meaningful because it serves as the primary food source of everything else in the ocean. Occasionally, some members of the collective, especially bacteria, are so visibly bioluminescent that "milky seas" — glowing water — are created. Areas as large as 6,000 square miles (15,540 square km) have been observed displaying the milky seas effect, and scientists are very interested in learning more about the conditions that give rise to this rare phenomenon.


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Post 7

@indigomoth - People eat algae as well, and that might become a more and more important food source in the future. It can be used as a fertilizer too, I think.

What I love is when you look at a little bit of ocean water underneath a microscope. I'm training to be a teacher right now and I have plans to always have a microscope set up in the classroom. With just drops of seawater and plankton I believe I could have something different underneath the scope every day of the year. The diatoms alone are gorgeous and fascinating, and definitely worth looking up. Try searching for pictures of planktons online.

Post 6

@Iluviaporos - That would be pretty cool. Another thing I might mention here is that although the article says that we don't really get many direct advantages from plankton (although we do, of course, get indirect advantages since we eat the fish that live on plankton) we actually do get one major one.

The algae in plankton are similar to plants in that they produce oxygen. I'm not sure if they are bigger producers than the rainforests, but we can't do without them at even a basic level, that's for sure.

Post 5

One of my favorite experiences was one New Years when I was on the beach with a group of friends (in a warm climate!) and at midnight we all waded out into the water at the stroke of midnight to bring in the new year. It wasn't until we were out there that we realized there was little glowing plankton specks all around us. It was amazing.

To this day, I'm not sure what kind of plankton animals they were, but they were amazing all the same. I would love to see the "milky sea" phenomenon mentioned in the article. I think that would be absolutely beautiful.

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