Arctic Mission

Zooplankton: life in miniature

Photo: Conor McDonnell

The closer you look, the more you see – especially when it comes to the Arctic Ocean. Last night, lead scientist Tim Gordon and wildlife biologist Heather Bauscher introduced us to the wonderful world of zooplankton.

After pulling up their nets from 100m below and emptying a sample into a glass on the kitchen table, our science team proudly presented what appeared to be a half litre of slightly murky water. A closer inspection, however, revealed an astonishing array of colour and life – one that most of us aren’t aware exists.

A microcosm of animals, each no bigger than a grain of rice, were whizzing around the glass, their translucent bodies streaked with vivid reds and iridescent greens. Propelled by fluttering legs, fanned tails and arm-like appendages longer than their bodies, there was a jaw-dropping diversity of shape, size and structure.

In fact, every single speck in the water was a living creature, each more bizarre and fascinating than the last. Looking out over the drifting ice floes, we then realise that every litre of this seemingly barren seascape is also a living, breathing mass of life, with countless surprises still waiting to be discovered. To quote Charles Darwin, the greatest sailing biologist in history, these waters are teeming with ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.’

The majority of these dazzling creatures are copepods – the crucial lynch pin at the bottom of the Arctic food chain. These are the primary consumers that graze on phytoplankton, convert plant products into lipids and provide energy that fuels all life here. Polar bears are often the headline-grabbers in this part of the world, but without copepods the entire Arctic ecosystem would collapse.

The samples Tim and Heather collect are being preserved on board for later analysis by experts at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the University of Exeter. Their results will reveal how changing ice conditions are affecting the abundance and population health of these beautiful, energy-filled pocket-rockets, and what that may mean for everything else that relies on them. The Arctic Ocean is supported by its smallest inhabitants – for life here, the key is in the minutiae.

Photographer Conor McDonnell capturing the Copepods. Photo: Tegid Cartwright

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Arctic Ocean and portrait images by kind permission of Martin Hartley:

Yacht and wildlife images by kind permission of Erik de Jong:

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