They may be tiny, but they are mighty. Known as the "insects of the sea," zooplankton may tell the tale about the disruptive effect of climate change on the delicate balance of life that exists in the northwestern Indian Ocean. The organisms are a critical food source for whales, fish, and corals. However, if climate change upsets the normal routine of these microscopic crustaceans, animals that depend on the zooplankton for food may face starvation.
For more than a decade explorers collected water samples from research vessels and small boats on the Arabian Sea, looking for creatures smaller than a grain of rice. More than 100 species from nearly 1,000 samples were painstakingly catalogued. The results were just published in two guides that will help researchers to better understand zooplankton communities in a region that is dramatically understudied.
"The Indian Ocean is one of the world's most highly productive seas," said University of Miami Oceanographer Sharon Smith, Ph.D. "Understanding the plankton there is the initial step in evaluating the ocean ecosystem which is home to humpback whales, large squid, yellow fin tuna, and an extensive coral reef system."
The first two books in the series, Calanoid Copepods of the Arabian Sea Region by I. Prusova, S.L. Smith & E. Popova and Halocyprid Ostracods of the Arabian Sea Region by I. Drapun & S.L. Smith describe these abundant members of the zooplankton community. This marks the first time peer-reviewed taxonomic information for the region has been collected in one place and in remarkable detail, making the books authoritative references.
"We illustrated the books using pen and ink drawings which represent these organisms accurately and completely," said Drs. Prusova and Drapun, scientists from the Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas. "What is new and original is that more detailed drawings are included in the books than are generally available elsewhere, and the drawings are uniform. This will facilitate correct identification."
The books feature photographs, as well as detailed line drawings of the zooplankton and their anatomical parts for reliable identification. The drawings were a result of meticulous research to collect, dissect and analyze each and every species of these two categories of planktonic organism.
"The drawings are works of art in themselves," said Smith, "but also highly useful tools for future explorers looking to investigate the marine food web of the northwestern Indian Ocean".
Creating this authoritative baseline of regional zooplankton species is fundamental to determining ways in which the planktonic ecosystem adjusts to climatologic changes. Due to a complex interaction between monsoon winds, and shrinking amounts of snow and ice on the Tibetan Plateau, the northwestern Indian Ocean is particularly vulnerable to climate change.
"We believe that climate change could alter the plankton communities in the Arabian Sea which is a threat to marine ecosystems and our food security," said Smith. "These books will enable researchers to evaluate the ecosystem now and in to the future."
Both books were published by Sultan Qaboos University Academic Publication Board, the publisher and distributor of these books. Since 1994, Sultan Qaboos University faculty and staff have been partners in the exploration of the northern Arabian Sea. These books are directed at all scientists interested in the plankton of this fascinating ocean, but particularly at regional scientists who will want to follow the changes in their local ecosystems, and understand effects of climate change on the base of the food web.
Explore further: Climate change could turn oxygen-free seas from a blessing to a curse for zooplankton
More information: Books:
Irina Prusova, Sharon L. Smith, and Elena Popova. Calanoid Copepods of the Arabian Sea Region. 2011. Sultan Qaboos University Academic Publication Board, Muscat, 240pp.
Inna Drapun, and Sharon L. Smith. Halocyprid Ostracods of the Arabian Sea Region. 2011. Sultan Qaboos University Academic Publication Board, Muscat, 223pp.