These Overlooked Organisms Are The Key To Life As We Know It

Plankton may be tiny, but they have a huge impact on the Earth. And they're in space?!

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The microscopic group of organisms known as plankton do so many things that most life on planet Earth literally could not survive without them. Plankton is an umbrella term for millions of tiny marine and freshwater organisms which drift around Earth's waters. "Plankton" can describe algae, bacteria, protozoans, crustaceans, mollusks, and coelenterates (so-lent-er-ates). Within plankton, there are two main groups: plant-like Phytoplankton and animal-like Zooplankton.

Plankton make up 98 percent of the biomass of Earth's oceans. The blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, scoops up and eats around 8,000 pounds (3600 kg) of krill (a kind of zooplankton) every single day, but there's still plenty more to go around and feed all the species of tiny shellfish and fish that also feed on them. Phytoplankton suck in carbon dioxide and spit out oxygen, which is great for us on land. According to some estimates, phytoplankton produce 50 to 85 percent of ALL the oxygen on our planet.

Plankton are omnipresent! An unconfirmed Russian report from last year says they discovered plankton on the outside hull of the International Space Station. They believe they got there via uplifting air currents, though they may not be alive once they get to space. Unfortunately, human activity is screwing everything up, again. A 2010 study in Nature found phytoplankton populations have dropped 40 percent since 1950 thanks to warming oceans. Given what we know about phytoplankton, this loss is pretty scary since it could disrupt so much of the life on our planet.

Learn More:
Plankton (Encyclopedia Britannica)
"Plankton,marine and freshwater organisms that, because they are nonmotile or too small or weak to swim against the current, exist in a drifting state."

Sea Plankton on Space Station, Russian Official Claims (DNews)
"A Russian official claims that samples collected by cosmonauts show evidence of sea plankton on the outside of the International Space Station, news agencies are reporting."