The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Photomontage of plankton organisms
Photomontage of plankton organisms

Plankton is the aggregate community of weakly swimming but mostly drifting small organisms that inhabit the water column of the ocean, seas, and bodies of freshwater. The name comes from the Greek term, πλαγκτoν—meaning "wanderer" or "drifter". While some forms of plankton can move several hundreds of meters vertically in a single day (a behavior called diel vertical migration), their horizontal position is mostly determined by water movement (currents) in the body of water they inhabit. Larger organisms, such as squid, fish, and marine mammals that can control their horizontal movement and swim against the average flow of the water environment, are called nekton. The study of plankton is termed planktology.

The term holoplankton refers to organisms that spend their entire life cycle as part of the plankton, such as krill, copepods, salps, and jellyfish. Meroplankton, in contrast, are only planktonic for part of their lives (usually the larval stage). Examples of meroplankton include the larvae of sea urchins, starfish, crustaceans, marine worms, and most fish.

Plankton concentration and distribution are sensitive to chemical and physical changes in the water.

Size groups

A hyperiid (Hyperia macrocephala)
A hyperiid amphipod (Hyperia macrocephala)

Plankton are often described in terms of size. Usually the following divisions are used:

  • Megaplankton, 20-200 cm
  • Macroplankton, 2-20 cm
  • Mesoplankton, 0.2 mm-2 cm
  • Microplankton, 20-200 μm
  • Nanoplankton, 2-20 μm
  • Picoplankton, 0.2-2 μm, mostly bacteria
  • Femtoplankton, smaller than 0.2 μm, consisting of marine viruses

However, some of these terms may be used with very different boundaries, especially on the larger end of the scale. The existence and importance of nano- and even smaller plankton was only discovered during the 1980s, but they are thought to make up the largest proportion of all plankton in number and diversity.

Functional groups

A (Calanoida sp.) ca. long
A copepod (Calanoida sp.) ca. 1-2mm long

Plankton are also divided into broad functional groups:

See also

Last updated: 08-14-2005 15:57:45
Last updated: 08-25-2005 18:54:56