HOLY FLYING PLANKTON!
by Daniel Strain
Plankton bring the flea circus to the ocean. Like flying trapeze artists or tumbling acrobats, these tiniest of marine animals can really soar above the water’s surface. Researchers have caught two species of miniscule crustaceans, called copepods, performing never-before-seen feats of athleticism: To avoid predators, they leap out of the water, completing arcs in the air about 40 times their own length.
Study co-author Brad Gemmell, a marine biologist at the University of Texas, Austin, owes the discovery to his daily routine. On most days after lunch, he takes a short stroll along the university’s marina, which sits on the Gulf of Mexico in Port Aransas. On one such walk, he noticed an unusual pattern on the water: “It looked like rain drops hitting the surface,” he says. “I thought, ‘That’s kind of strange.’ “
Gemmell ran back to his lab, grabbed a beaker, and scooped up some of the marina water. What he found were lots of copepods—crustaceans smaller than most ants that look like tiny lobsters. He placed the creatures into a tank shared by plankton-eating fish, then watched as some of the copepods literally jumped to safety, landing back down with tiny splashes. Gemmell was amazed. That’s not a behavior scientists had ever described before…
(read more: Science NOW)
(images: (copepod, left) Brad Gemmell; (diagram, right) B. J. Gemmell et al., Proc.R. Soc. B (2012))