The Drifters

Plankton planet: Meet the creatures who make up 98 percent of the oceans’ biomass. /

Even when God makes a little thing, it is great because of the wisdom displayed in making it. The microscope has taught us the greatness of God in creating tiny creatures of wondrous beauty, yet so small as not to be perceptible to the naked eye. “The works of the Lord are great.”
—Charles Spurgeon, Exposition of Psalm 111

Take two breaths. For one of them, you can thank the plankton, in particular the single-celled photosynthetic drifters that compose the phytoplankton of the world ocean. Remarkably, these elegant, microscopic cells perform nearly half of the photosynthesis and consequent oxygen production on Earth—equivalent to the total amount of photosynthetic activity of land plants combined. These tiny single cells have transformed the ocean, atmosphere, and terrestrial environment and helped make the planet habitable for a broad spectrum of other organisms, including ourselves. In many cases, blooms of phytoplankton reach such densities that they change the color of ocean surface waters and are even visible from satellites orbiting Earth.

Every schoolchild knows that baleen whales, the biggest animals in the sea, subsist on huge quantities of krill, which are small zooplankton. But ocean food webs (the linkages between predators and prey) are far more intricate than this familiar example. Many types of plankton eat other plankton. . . . Some plankton have the ability to function as plants (carrying out photosynthesis) and animals at the same time. Others secrete elaborate mineral skeletons of calcium carbonate or silica. Still others live in complex symbiotic relationships with partner organisms. One type of gelatinous zooplankton—the appendicularians—has remarkably fine mesh feeding ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 30 / September 3, 2015
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 30: Picturing plankton, the rarely told story of the first missionary to the Muslims, and the arresting burning bush. /

  2. Before We Conquer, Have We Tried Love and Prayers?

    Remembering the first missionary to Muslims, 700 years after his death. /

  3. Stay By the Fire

    The God who makes himself known as flame wants to hold our gaze. /

  4. The New Creation

    ‘A choir of a thousand tongues / singing we’ll no longer toil.’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Wonder on the Web Issue 30: Links to amazing stuff /

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