Tag Archive: bioluminescence

Plankton Confessional


Default plankton.

by chelsea schuyler

Your Definition of Plankton

plankton silhouette


Plankton – the little floaty things in the ocean that whales eat, right? So much more. For example: chalk. You heard me.

I submit that the reason I didn’t really know what plankton is is because nobody ever told me all the COOL stuff about it. Cool commenceth here.

Actual & Greek Definition of Plankton

Plankton = ocean creatures that drift around and cannot swim against a current.

different races running a race

The minority on the right is totally gonna win.

It’s a wicked biological catch-all – for when you’re just too lazy to be specific or taxonomically technical. Like ‘dinosaurs’ or…‘minorities’.

Plankton officially comes from the Greek word ‘planktos’ for ‘wanderer.’ Which I think is a bit of stretch – I mean, are you really ‘wandering’ if you can only kinda flail around? And only maybe in a direction if it’s nice and calm out? Like, are limbless people ‘wanderers’? Or people in hot air balloons?

air balloons like plankton

Pretty sure all those who planktos are lost.

Or is ‘wander’ really just a euphemism to make it sound like being scared out of our minds includes some kind of spiritual openness, like, again, being in a hot air balloon, or being eaten by a whale (I’m lookin’ at you krill,…and Jonah).

They say mosquitoes can’t fly against a breeze (air plankton!) but they are definitely not ‘wandering’. They are out to do evil. They are eviling.



But I digress…

Plankton can be plant-like (phytoplankton) or animal-like (zooplankton), and some are only considered plankton for part of their lives. Like small children caught in the undertow.



Just because you’re plankton doesn’t mean you can’t be a brainless brain-destroyer mildly reminiscent of an atom bomb.

Zooplankton are the animal-like ones that have to find food for themselves. The largest official plankton – jellyfish. Amazing right? Making ‘jellyfish’ neither a jelly, nor a fish. Discuss.

But it’s true, jellyfish are plankton, as though they can swim in a direction, they could not stand up to a flipper’s worth of current.

In my mind, they sit a little easier at the plankton table because they have no bones or brain. Ironic that something with no brain would contain a neurotoxin (eats brains!) in their tentacles.

Enough about animal-likes, let’s talk about the plant-likes.

Phytoplankton = Chalk

Phytoplankton have chlorophyll in them, so they can get their energy from the sun. They tend, therefore, to hang out near the surface where they provide food for shrimp, snails, whales, and ironically, jellyfish (it’s like the blind eating the blind!).

One type of phytoplankton is a teenie weeny thing called a coccolithophore (pronounced: Co-co for Cocoa Puffs LIT-oh-four). For protection it iron mans itself by making limestone plates all around it in a shell of scales. Cuz that’s a thing.

coccoliths and puzzle ball

Coccolithophores’ worthy aspiration.

But I suppose limestone is just calcium, carbon, and oxygen, which are all present in the ocean. No doubt just waiting to become like one of those plastic puzzle balls that you can throw against a wall and shatter, then put back together. Like that. Only stone and awesome.

When these creatures die or make extra (or someone goes on a throwing spree), the plates fall to the bottom of the ocean. That oceans recedes, and the exposed rock is covered in the remains, which is this white powdery stuff that we call chalk!

colored death sticks

colored death sticks

Friggin chalk! Which in the 1900s we then gathered, refined, formed into cylinders, baked (#ScientistsAreBakersToo) and then scrawled on blackboards which were black because they were made from actual slate rock. Rock on rock = bleeding ears. It’s all coming together…

The White Cliffs of Dover in England. Because chalk!

The White Cliffs of Dover in England. Because chalk!

If you have a microscope, you should immediately look at some chalk dust. You might need a powerful one though, as these shells, or coccoliths as they are called, are only 3 one-thousandths of a millimeter. Each coccolithophore has about 30. Which means the number of these dead creatures in the ocean is in the bajillion million, impossibillion scale.

Phytoplankton = Magic

If chalk doesn’t impress you, it being dead n’all, how about dinoflagellates (pronounced: mag-ic)? These plankton have tails (flagella) that help them swim about as well as a pool noodle would serve as an oar. Better yet though, these plankton are bioluminescent, which mean they light up perdy (to learn how this really works, check out my post I’ll Luminate Your Essence).

The theory goes that they flash to confuse predators, or warn others. But they’re easily scared, so anything that disturbs them, like waves, will set them off. Hence amazing waves:

Phytoplankton = Flea Killer


Diatoms – best Christmas decorations ever

Another major group of phytoplankton are diatoms. These are the single-celled snowflakes of the ocean. Instead of surrounding themselves with a limestone shell, these guys have a silica (glass-like stuff) based covering, which makes them unique and gorgeous.

They also leave their shells behind after death, and their powdery remains are called diatomaceous earth. You may have heard of this as an alternative flea control. How does it work?

diatomaceous earth

diatomaceous chex mix will destroy your flea family

Well, diatomaceous earth is like a bunch of microscopic death shards. If it touches a flea, the flea’s exoskeleton is cut open, and the super absorbent power sucks out their fluids and dehydrates them to death.

Kind of like if you threw a human into a vat of diamonds and lined the bottom with paper towels. The only problem is, to use it you basically have to white powder bomb your house and hope it’s getting to every last flea.

I am nothing if not here to educate, so hopefully you will walk away with the knowledge that plankton is a magical, chalky, snowflake flea death. The truth shall prevail.

Photos are in the public domain except:
plankton collage: photo by Kils, CC by SA 3.0
coccolithophore: photo by Alison R. Taylor, CC by 2.5
diatoms b/w: photo by Dawid Siodlak, CC by SA 4.0

I’ll Luminate YOUR Essence

clap on, clap off

New Zealand cave Glow Worms

by chelsea schuyler

Bioluminescence is the mixing of chemicals together to emit light. A natural glow stick.

Yeah, whatever, how?  Well, a lot of different ways cuz this particular trait has evolved in different creatures many times. ANNOYING. But basically there’s two ways. Light organs, or bacteria.

LIGHT ORGANS: (which are always casually mentioned in articles as if they’re not the most amazing thing ever. Just pick one up on the way home. Um, light organ! People, amazing! Next you know they’ll be talkin’ about ‘fire organs’ used by dragons. Yeah, you know, fire organs and then fire came out. Taco?).

ahem, LIGHT ORGANS: You might think of a light organ as a layer of skin, which is also an organ (which is just confusing, i’d like to speak to the organizer of these terms). This layer of skin is made of eye-like cells. Let’s go with that, eyes. The pupil constantly radiates light, but the eye itself is neurologically controlled and can squint, close, or open wide, changing the amount of light emitted in different places at different times.

so how do the ‘eyes’ emit light?  Beware, chemistry alert. The creatures have luciferins, and use the enzyme luciferase to mix with it and the reaction produces light photons. It really is just like a glow stick, except with enzymes instead of hydrogen peroxide.

It sounds like i’m being technical (bad chelsea!) but i’m actually using the generic terms. “Luciferin” (latin for “bringer of light’) just means a molecule that emits light, of which there are many different kinds with even more complicated names.  It’d be like asking what the kids have at the cafeteria and hearing “food” when really each kid has a bagel, or a sandwich etc.  Basically it’s Science’s smart-talk way of saying “Light is there because ‘light’ is there.”  We’re also accepting “the origin of this animal’s light is ‘light.’ Yep.” But they do it to save you from going into all the different molecules that just look boring and remind you why you hated Chemistry in college.

Glowing wave created by bioluminescent plankton

The REAL question is, where do all the different luciferins come from? Well, the jury’s still out on that. Some sources are kind of known.  Dinoflagellates, the little plankton responsible for lighting up oceans, get their food from photosynthesis, and their luciferin resembles chlorophyll. The brighter the sun the day before, the brighter they are at night.

They think squid get it from their diet, but where their diet gets it from is an X file. Or maybe it’s manufactured from their food after eating it, it’s not quite clear. Mystery! Love it!

OR they don’t get it at all.

BACTERIA: Some creatures realize that making your own luciferin is for suckers, so they employ bacteria. Food and shelter in exchange for light. I always would throw popcorn at the screen when no one would say how the creature tells the bacteria when to turn on and off!?! The answers are fascinating. The bacteria’s light does not, in fact, ever turn off. The creatures who have this symbiotic relationship with them 1) evolved flaps of skin like eyelids to cover them, 2) suck in the sacks of bacteria into their stomachs, 3) have fluorescent proteins that change the color. (Remember, fluorescence is absorbing light and emitting a different light, bioluminescence is mixing chemicals together to produce light. Compact Fluorescent Bulb vs glow stick).

coolest ever. and we get none of it. not mammals, not reptiles, not birds, not amphibians. but I guess it’s the trade off for having to look like this:

the female Anglerfish - no Miss Ocean

but wait, there is one, one mammal who defied the odds. Rudolph.  As to where rudolph gets his luciferin, i’m thinking he’s got an elf who “knows how to get things.”

Plays a mean Reindeer game

So there you have it.    P.S. for a fascinating historical summary of the origins of the biblical name “Lucifer” equating the fallen angel and therefore the devil, and how this was possibly completely lost in the translation of hebrew to …everything else, click here.  Merry Holidays!

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