With so many cool animals living in our oceans, it’s hard to choose a favorite. But in thinking of mighty whales, sleek sharks, intriguing octopi, and playful dolphins, we sometimes forget that there are lots of other living things in our oceans – tiny little things, that are just as cool and important as the bigger fish in the sea (so to speak). Take phytoplankton, for example. These single-cell organisms are more like plants than fish, in that they undergo photosynthesis to make their energy and are a source of food for many other marine animals. This is pretty amazing on its own, but these tiny critter have a lot more going for them. Today let’s learn about and celebrate some of the most awesome phytoplankton in the world… dinoflagellates! Check out these 5 amazing facts about these diminutive ocean dwellers.
1. They’re Big-Time Oxygen Makers
Half of the oxygen in our atmosphere is produced by phytoplankton like dinoflagellates. Half! Phytoplankton use the sun to turn light into energy, a process known as photosynthesis, and during that process oxygen is released as a byproduct into our atmosphere – just like trees. The danger we are facing is that humans are creating more carbon gasses than oxygen, which is causing global warming. This is why organisms like plants, trees, and dinoflagellates are so important, they help maintain appropriate levels of oxygen to keep our planet habitable.
2. No Need for Alarm Clocks
Dinoflagellates don’t need an alarm clock or eyes to know when it’s daylight (an important trait for an organism that needs sunlight to make energy). Instead, they have a type of internal clock that tells the dinoflagellates when the sun is out so they can rise to the ocean’s surface and photosynthesize.
3. You Can’t Count Them on Two Hands
It is estimated that there are over 2,000 distinct species of dinoflagellates in our oceans and lakes. Although they’re small and hard to see, sometimes tides will bunch thousands of these tiny phytoplankton together creating a bloom which, depending on the species of dinoflagellate, can color the water red. This phenomenon is known as a “red tide.”
4. Dinoflagellates Will Be Here for a Long Time
The ocean can be a challenging place to live in, especially for tiny organisms like dinoflagellates. But some of these little guys have a way to ensure their future when things get too tough in the ocean’s environment. About 10% of dinoflagellates have the ability to form cysts around themselves that contain their unique genetic information. These cysts travel to the bottom of the ocean and rest on the floor’s sediment. When the ocean conditions are just right, the dinoflagellates will grow again from the genetic material in the cysts. Basically, they clone themselves. Pretty wild!
5. Anything That Glows is Cool
The ability to glow in the dark is probably one of the coolest things that a living organism can do! Dinoflagellates give off a beautiful incandescent blue light by releasing a chemical known as luciferin, which lights up when it is oxidized by the enzyme luciferase. This reaction only occurs at night when the dinoflagellates are swished around. Some scientist believe that dinoflagellates use their bioluminescence as a “burglar alarm” to defend against predators: when they glow, it attracts big predators who eat the dinoflagellates’ predators – the hunters become the hunted!