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Plankton consist of any drifting organisms (animals, plants, archaea, or bacteria) that inhabit the pelagic zone of oceans, seas, or bodies of fresh water. Plankton are defined by their ecological niche rather than their phylogenetic or taxonomic classification. They provide a crucial source of food to more familiar aquatic organisms such as fish.

Though many planktonic species are microscopic in size, the plankton includes organisms covering a wide range of sizes, including large organisms such as jellyfish.


name plankton is derived from the Greek word πλαγκτος ("planktos"), meaning "wanderer" or "drifter". By definition, organisms classified as plankton are unable to resist ocean currents. While some forms are capable of independent movement and can swim hundreds of meters vertically in a single day (a behavior called diel vertical migration), their horizontal position is primarily determined by the surrounding currents. This is in contrast to nekton organisms that can swim against the ambient flow and control their position (e.g. squid, fish, and marine mammals).

Within the plankton, holoplankton spend their entire life cycle as plankton (e.g. most algae, copepods, salps, and some jellyfish). By contrast, meroplankton are only planktonic for part of their lives (usually the larval stage), and then graduate to either the nekton or a benthic (sea floor) existence. Examples of meroplankton include the larvae of sea urchins, starfish, crustaceans, marine worms, and most fish.

Plankton abundance and distribution are strongly dependent on factors such as ambient nutrients concentrations, the physical state of the water column, and the abundance of other plankton.

The study of plankton is termed planktology and individual plankton are referred to as plankters.

Functional groupings

are primarily divided into broad functional (or trophic level) groups:

This scheme divides the plankton community into broad producer, consumer and recycler groups. However, determining the trophic level of some plankton is not straightforward. For example, although most dinoflagellates are either photosynthetic producers or heterotrophic consumers, many species are mixotrophic depending upon their circumstances.

Size groups

Plankton are also often described in terms of size. Usually the following divisions are used:
Group Size range (ESD)
Megaplankton > 2×10-2 m (20+ mm) metazoans; e.g. jellyfish; ctenophores; salps and pyrosomes (pelagic Tunicata); Cephalopoda
Macroplankton 2×10-3→2×10-2 m (2-20 mm) metazoans; e.g. Pteropods; Chaetognaths; Euphausiacea (krill); Medusae; ctenophores; salps, doliolids and pyrosomes (pelagic Tunicata); Cephalopoda
Mesoplankton 2×10-4→2×10-3 m (0.2 mm-2 mm) metazoans; e.g. copepods; Medusae; Cladocera; Ostracoda; Chaetognaths; Pteropods; Tunicata; Heteropoda
Microplankton 2×10-5→2×10-4 m (20-200 µm) large eukaryotic protists; most phytoplankton; Protozoa (Foraminifera); ciliates; Rotifera; juvenile metazoans - Crustacea (copepod nauplii)
Nanoplankton 2×10-6→2×10-5 m (2-20 µm) small eukaryotic protists; Small Diatoms; Small Flagellates; Pyrrophyta; Chrysophyta; Chlorophyta; Xanthophyta
Picoplankton 2×10-7→2×10-6 m (0.2-2 µm) small eukaryotic protists; bacteria; Chrysophyta
Femtoplankton < 2×10-7 m (< 0.2 µm) marine viruses

However, some of these terms may be used with very different boundaries, especially on the larger end of the scale. The existence and importance of nano- and even smaller plankton was only discovered during the 1980s, but they are thought to make up the largest proportion of all plankton in number and diversity.


Plankton inhabit oceans, seas and lakes. Local abundance varies horizontally, vertically and seasonally. The primary cause of this variability is the availability of light. All plankton ecosystems are driven by the input of solar energy (but see chemosynthesis), confining primary production to surface waters, and to geographical regions and seasons having abundant light.

A secondary variable is nutrient availability. Although large areas of the tropical and sub-tropical oceans have abundant light, they experience relatively low primary production because they offer limited nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate and silicate. This results from large-scale ocean circulation and water column stratification. In such regions, primary production usually occurs at greater depth, although at a reduced level (because of reduced light).

Despite significant macronutrient concentrations, some ocean regions are unproductive (so-called HNLC regions). The micronutrient iron is deficient in these regions, and adding it can lead to the formation of blooms of many kinds of phytoplankton. Iron primarily reaches the ocean through the deposition of dust on the sea surface. Paradoxically, oceanic areas adjacent to unproductive, arid land thus typically have abundant phytoplankton (e.g., the western Atlantic Oceanmarker, where trade winds bring dust from the Sahara Desert in north Africa). While plankton are most abundant in surface waters, they live throughout the water column. At depths where no primary production occurs, zooplankton and bacterioplankton instead consume organic material sinking from more productive surface waters above. This flux of sinking material, so-called marine snow, can be especially high following the termination of spring blooms.

Biogeochemical significance

Aside from representing the bottom few levels of a food chain that supports commercially important fisheries, plankton ecosystems play a role in the biogeochemical cycles of many important chemical elements, including the ocean's carbon cycle.

As stated, phytoplankton fix carbon in sunlit surface waters via photosynthesis. Through (primarily) zooplankton grazing, this carbon enters the planktonic foodweb, where it is either respired to provide metabolic energy, or accumulates as biomass or detritus. As organic material is typically more dense than seawater it tends to sink, and in open ocean ecosystems away from the coasts this transports carbon from surface waters to the deep. This process is known as the biological pump, and is one of the reasons that the oceans constitute the largest carbon sink on Earth.

It might be possible to increase the ocean's uptake of carbon dioxide generated through human activities by increasing the production of plankton through "seeding", primarily with the micronutrient iron. However, this technique may not be practical at a large scale. Ocean oxygen depletion and resultant methane production (caused by the excess production remineralising at depth) is one potential drawback..

Importance to fish

Zooplankton are the initial prey item for almost all fish larvae as they switch from their yolk sacs to external feeding. Fish rely on the density and distribution of zooplankton to match that of new larvae, which can otherwise starve. Natural factors (e.g. current variations) and man-made factors (e.g. river dams) can strongly affect zooplankton, which can in turn strongly affect larval survival, and therefore breeding success.

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