Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
 
 
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Looking under the microscope in the Exploration Center

Every day the Aquarium is open to the public, an Exploration Center staff member heads down to the boat launch located in the harbor and performs a plankton tow. This involves dragging a specially designed 83 micron net through sea water to catch some of the ocean’s smallest life forms. (There are 1,000 microns in one millimeter and each micron equals 0.000039 of an inch.) Each day’s catch is brought back to the Exploration Center and a sample from the tow is placed under a microscope.

“This allows visitors to have the chance to see what plankton looks like and learn what kinds of plankton are in the harbor,” said Esther Nah, Aquarium Educator. “For many our guests, it’s the first time they’ve used a microscope, so that’s always exciting. It’s fun to show them how easy it is and what kind of things we can see that had just been invisible to them.”

For those who are a bit apprehensive about using a microscope, there’s nothing to fear because one of the microscopes is connected to a television on the wall, allowing everyone to see the tiny critters on the big screen. Another microscope is set up for guests to use. Visitors can use a dropper to draw water from the plankton tow sample and place a drop on a small glass dish on the microscope slide. CMA staff will be on hand to show you how to adjust the microscope to see what your sample of water contains by magnifying it up to 400 times its normal size. Staff members will also help you identify what kinds of plankton you see because you never know what you might find.

“We’ve found many different types of zooplankton (animal plankton), including polychaete worm larva, tons of copepods and larval shrimp and fish,” said Nah. “We have also caught several types of phytoplankton (algae plankton), including pseudo-nitzschia, the diatom that produces domoic acid, a neurotoxin that has caused many ocean animals to get sick.”

But that’s not all! The plankton tow has also caught some really neat ocean critters and one surprise find. “We've caught several beautiful bell jellies before,” said Nah. “And recently we caught a black dorid, which is an exquisite looking type of nudibranch (sea slug) that only gets to be about an inch long. Another time we found something that we couldn't find in any of our reference books and it turned out to be pine tree pollen.”

Checking out the plankton tow in the Exploration Center is a great way to learn more about plankton and the life cycles of many types of ocean animals. Phytoplankton produce the majority of oxygen for our planet and some of the animals we eat start life out as zooplankton or depend on plankton as the base of their food chain. So during your next visit, make sure you stop by the Exploration Center and take a look at what’s under the microscope.

Post Date: Thursday, August 02, 2012

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