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In life's darkest hour, plankton saves the day

By Leonard Ho - Posted May 31, 2011 07:00 AM
The asteroid that killed off dinosaurs 65 million years ago could have done a lot more damage to life on Earth if not for the perseverance of some of the tiniest organisms on earth: plankton. A recent study published in the journal 'Nature Communications' concludes dinoflagellates, diatoms, and cyanobacteria "aided survival across the (extinction event) and played a crucial role for the resurgence of primary production and ecosystem recovery."
In life's darkest hour, plankton saves the day

65 million year old planktonic cyst as viewed through electron microscopy.

Impact_event.jpgFor a century following the asteroid impact 65 million years ago, the planet was shrouded in darkness by immense plums of ash clouds.  Massive earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires rocked the Earth.  With the dark clouds blocking out the sun, our planet first experienced drastic cooling, then a dramatic warming due to the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere from volcanoes and wildfires.

The life-sustaining Earth had suddenly turned into a hostile wasteland. Many plants and animals died off, never to be seen again.

But coastal plankton had an ace up its sleeve.  They formed cysts, laying in dormancy for a century of inhospitable conditions.  Just as astonishing as their ability to survive is how effective plankton were able to repopulate after their long "sleep."  Their revival helped to reform the base of the food chain and  reshape the atmosphere for other life to survive.  The study concludes plankton's amazing resiliency and resurgence aided the planet's recovery and likely saved Earth from more extinctions ... extinctions that would have drastically altered life as we know it today.

Aquarists hold diatoms, dinoflagellates and cyanobacteria in contempt (and for good reason).  But next time we set out to eradicate them from our tanks, perhaps we should whisper a little thank you to these life savers.

Read the full study at Nature Communictions.

Author: Leonard Ho
Location: Southern California

I'm a passionate aquarist of over 30 years, a coral reef lover, and the blog editor for Advanced Aquarist. While aquarium gadgets interest me, it's really livestock (especially fish), artistry of aquariums, and "method behind the madness" processes that captivate my attention.


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