In 1899, a German biologist and philosopher by the name of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) literally drew the world’s attention to a group of extremely small and intricate oceanic microorganisms know as radiolarians. Together with diatoms and dinoflagellates, these tiny organisms (most with diameters of less than 0.2 mm) comprise a group of plankton known as zooplankton (to be distinguished rom phytoplankton or “plant planktons). Haeckel drew and painted hundreds of pages of radiolarians that no one had previously taken serious notice and published his illustrations in Art Forms in Nature (1899), which is arguably the first coffee table book on nature. Below are a sample of his exquisite drawings.
Phytoplanktons, a group of free-floating microalgae, are the most common variety of planktons found in the oceans. Despite their tiny size, they play an out-sized role in regulating the earth’s atmosphere, generating about half the atmosphere’s oxygen, which is as much per year as all land plants. They also form the base of virtually every ocean food web. In short, they make most other ocean life possible.
While planktons as a group may transform the ocean, the atmosphere and the terrestrial environment, they inhabit a world that is barely known and which has only recently been understood to be as complex and diverse as anything found in the rainforests. Thanks to new photographic techniques derived from medical imagery, we can now see the astonishing richness of what is known as the “drifting world” in all its glory. Here is proof.