Plankton: The smallest of organisms require the largest of boats

Did you know that jellyfish are plankton? That’s right, they’re not just abstruse microscopic organisms (although many of them are). For example, did you know that the size difference between plankton members is on an order of magnitude similar to the size of a human compared to the size of Earth? These are just a few of the fun plankton facts our upcoming guest has in store for us.

Elena Conser is a third year PhD student in the Plankton Ecology Lab. She really, really, loves plankton – marine organisms that are unable to swim against the current and are thus, at the whim and mercy of their environment (of which Elena attributes a sort of philosophical solace in). More specifically, she looks at zooplankton, animals that live in the plankton. These organisms form the basis of marine food webs, and Elena’s research aims to better understand planktonic communities and their food webs. She does this off the coast of Oregon, in an oceanographic region called the ‘Northern Californian Current’. This area is extremely productive for plankton growth and supports several economically important fisheries. It is also characterized by upwelling and periods of low oxygen, prompting Elena to investigate the structure of zooplankton communities here and how they may shift in response to environmental change.

To study plankton, Elena employs cutting-edge technology off large research vessels. She uses an imaging system known as ‘ISIIS’ (In-Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System) to view plankton in their natural environment, something that has not previously been possible in her field. The data collected with this system is processed using deep learning and computer vision to capture and identify plankton. Through this, Elena is also able to attain information on what plankton are where, how big they are, and how many there are. Elena couples her imagery data from ISIIS with biological samples of ichthyoplankton (larval fish), collected at different depths using nets. Using the ear bones (known as ‘otoliths’) from these physical samples, she can age larval fish much like how trees can be dated through their rings. She does this on English sole, a common flatfish occurring in the Northern California Current, to better understand the development from larval to juvenile stage.

Elena always knew of the importance of the ocean, which led her to studying marine science, biology, and applied math at the University of Miami in Florida. Here she worked with a larval fish scientist and became curious about the importance of plankton communities. This curiosity led her back to her roots in Oregon to pursue plankton research with developing technology. Her research is indeed at the intersection of oceanography, ecology, and computer science. She is excited to continue tackling questions that have never been able to be answered until now. To hear more on the importance of plankton and the interesting questions Elena is asking, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM this Sunday, February 25th, or shortly thereafter where you get your podcasts!

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