Earthtopomaps – Patagonian Plankton Swirls, Phytoplankton

What are Phytoplankton?

Derived from the Greek words phyto (plant) and plankton (made to wander or drift), phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that live in watery environments, both salty and fresh.

Earthtopomaps – Patagonian Plankton Swirls, Phytoplankton

Some phytoplankton are bacteria, some are protists, and most are single-celled plants. Among the common kinds are cyanobacteria, silica-encased diatoms, dinoflagellates, green algae, and chalk-coated coccolithophores.

Earthtopomaps - Patagonian Plankton Swirls

Phytoplankton are extremely diverse, varying from photosynthesizing bacteria (cyanobacteria), to plant-like diatoms, to armor-plated coccolithophores (drawings not to scale). (Collage adapted from drawings and micrographs by Sally Bensusen, NASA EOS Project Science Office.)

Earthtopomaps – Patagonian Plankton Swirls, Phytoplankton

Like land plants, phytoplankton have chlorophyll to capture sunlight, and they use photosynthesis to turn it into chemical energy. They consume carbon dioxide, and release oxygen. All phytoplankton photosynthesize, but some get additional energy by consuming other organisms.

Earthtopomaps - Patagonian Plankton Swirls Phytoplankton create rich blooms of color in the Atlantic Ocean near South America

Phytoplankton growth depends on the availability of carbon dioxide, sunlight, and nutrients. Phytoplankton, like land plants, require nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate, silicate, and calcium at various levels depending on the species. Some phytoplankton can fix nitrogen and can grow in areas where nitrate concentrations are low. They also require trace amounts of iron which limits phytoplankton growth in large areas of the ocean because iron concentrations are very low. Other factors influence phytoplankton growth rates, including water temperature and salinity, water depth, wind, and what kinds of predators are grazing on them.

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Revised September 16, 2023

Published by earthtopomaps

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