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UCL Earth Sciences

Newly discovered ocean plankton named after BBC Blue Planet.

17 April 2018

A new species of ocean plankton, Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, has been discovered and named by UCL researchers in honour of the critically acclaimed BBC Blue Planet series and its presenter Sir David Attenborough.

Although measuring only thousandths of a millimetre, these plankton play a pivotal role in marine ecosystems as a crucial source of food for many ocean dwelling organisms. They are also incredibly valuable for studying the impact of climate change on ocean life now and across the previous 220 million years.
The plankton – called coccolithophores – are single cells surrounded by a calcite shell that varies drastically in shape across different species, acting as armour against predators.
“Although microscopic, the plankton are so abundant that they are visible from space as swirling blooms in the surface oceans, and form our most iconic rocks with their calcite forms making up the bulk of the white chalk cliffs and downs of southern England,” explained study co-author Professor Paul Bown.
It is the ability to produce this calcite shell that is being disrupted through ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is a symptom of climate change whereby rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, increasing its acidity.
By studying fossilised plankton shells or ‘coccoliths’ in samples from drilling down deep into the ocean bed, scientists can map the impact of climate change and other global events over a very long period of time and use this to inform what might happen to in the future.

The BBC BluePlanet

Image:Dr Jeremy Young and Prof Paul Bown authors of the study that names a new species after the BBC Blue Planet series.

Recent research, studying both fossil and modern coccolithophores, has shown that these plankton are resilient to global warming and ocean acidification but increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere impairs their growth rates and overall production.

“The negative impact of increases in carbon dioxide on the growth rate and numbers of plankton could have serious food supply implications for ocean organisms as they form the base of the food chain with many larger creatures dependent on them including fish and whales. The plankton also take carbon out of the atmosphere to use as energy and so their demise may increase carbon dioxide levels further, compounding the issue,” explained Dr Jeremy Young, co-author of the study.

Syracosphaera azureaplaneta

Image: (left) Sir David Attenborough and Prof Paul Bown during the visit to the department (right) The model of Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, species named after the BBC Blue Planet series.

The discovery involving researchers from UCL, Institut de Ciencias del Mar (Barcelona, Spain), Kochi University and Yamagata University (both Japan) was published today in Journal of Nannoplankton Research. The paper describes the new species which was discovered living in the South Atlantic Ocean today and highlights the two distinctive coccoliths that form the plankton’s shell. It follows the characterisation of about 400 new species of plankton microfossils by UCL researchers which are available to see in an open-access online library called Nannotax. This includes images of the entire ancient and modern diversity of plankton across ~4500 species.

UCL scientists have been at the forefront of this field since the 1960s, when the earliest scanning electron microscopes first revealed plankton’s exquisite and elaborate calcium-based forms. “We have a real heritage in describing plankton and being at the forefront of using these discoveries to map the impact of climate change and health of our oceans over millions of years,” explained Professor Lars Stixrude, Head of UCL Earth Sciences.
“It is therefore fitting that we are naming our latest discovery, Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, after Blue Planet as Sir David officially opens the newly refurbished Kathleen Lonsdale Building at UCL which fully accommodates our researchers and students from our Earth Sciences department for the first time.”
Sir David was guest of honour at the opening ceremony today where he gave a talk on the importance of earth sciences and was presented with a sculpture of the plankton. He met with staff and students to discuss their world-leading research into a wide-range of areas from the world’s oldest fossils, the impact of climate change on the planet, subatomic particles, smart materials and the furthest reaches of space.

Read the full story: UCL News