Submitted by South Sound GREEN

In the face of COVID-19 and recent stay at home order, parents and guardians may find themselves looking for activities that not only keep students engaged, but also provide information about local environmental science and concerns. In our South Sound GREEN Home Based Science Project series, we will introduce and demonstrate various hands-on and at-home activities for children of all ages to do either indoors or outside!

This time, we explore the beautiful microscopic world of plankton and create our own plankton “snowflakes”!

Plankton Snowflakes

Grade Level: K-3rd

Materials

  • Paper
  • Scissors
  • Plankton ID guide (link below)
  • Markers/crayons (optional)

Background

We’ve briefly explored the wide world of plankton in previous activities (such as Nitrate Bingo and Underwater Explorers) but with the start of Pacific Shellfish Institute’s What’s Blooming This Week? plankton monitoring events, we wanted to give plankton the spotlight! When you hear “plankton,” your first thought might be about the SpongeBob character, but plankton are so much more than that! Plankton are organisms that live in aquatic environments and drift, or move around with the natural motion of the water. There are two types of plankton: phytoplankton, which are plants, and zooplankton, which are animals. In this activity, we’re mainly going to focus on phytoplankton, but in case you were curious, the character Plankton from SpongeBob is actually based on the real life zooplankton copepod!

Plankton, the SpongeBob character, compared to a real copepod! Can you see the resemblance? Picture courtesy: ResearchGate/Elisa Caref

Phytoplankton are often microscopic plants that live near the surface of the water, even in deep ocean environments. This is because just like plants that live on land, phytoplankton make their own food through the process of photosynthesis, which requires sunlight. If phytoplankton get too deep in the water, they won’t be able to access enough sunlight to make their own food. During photosynthesis, plants produce oxygen – this means that phytoplankton produce oxygen too! In fact, there are so many phytoplankton in the world that they are responsible for between half and three quarters of all of the oxygen on the planet! Phytoplankton also create the base of the food chain, becoming a food source for zooplankton and other small marine creatures. These phytoplankton feeders then become food for larger and larger organisms, going all the way up to the fish that humans catch and eat. For all of these reasons, phytoplankton are incredibly important for both their ecosystems and the whole world!

In order to survive, phytoplankton need to be able to stay in a region of water that receives sufficient sunlight, also called the photic zone, and needs to be able to defend itself against being eaten by predators. Different plankton have come up with different techniques to be able to survive in all sorts of aquatic environments, from oceans to rivers to lakes, and adapt to face the unique challenges of each system. Coccolithophores, for example, are phytoplankton that cover themselves in tiny shields to protect from predators, while some diatoms protect themselves with sharp spikes made of the same material as glass. The shapes of phytoplankton also help them control the rate at which they sink in the water, because they are not able to move in the water on their own. Dinoflagellates, on the other hand, can actually move their “tails” to move through the water. Overall, these plankton structures, which can only be seen under a microscope, are not only beautiful but also very useful.

An example of a coccolithophore. Most chalk comes from the shells of dead coccolithophores! Picture courtesy: Colby College
These are all different types of diatoms! Picture courtesy: The McCrone Group

In this activity, you’re going to be making your own plankton designs just like you would make a snowflake out of paper. It may be the start of summer, but the winter holidays are only six months away!

Procedure

  • Take a piece of paper and fold it in half. Fold it in half again in the other direction from how you folded it the first time, as shown in the picture below.
Fold your paper in half twice, as shown. Picture credit: Sam Nadell
  • Use your scissors to cut out shapes in the paper. Make sure you don’t cut off all of your folded edges, otherwise your “plankton” will fall apart!
Start making cuts in your paper. Don’t cut off your folded edges! Picture credit: Sam Nadell
  • Carefully unfold your paper. Compare your “plankton” to this phytoplankton ID guide from the University of Washington. Does your “plankton” look like any real species? If so, try to identify your “plankton”, and if not, make up a new name for your plankton!
    • What advantages does your phytoplankton have? Can it defend itself from predators, or move through the water?
Two examples of plankton snowflakes. Using the phytoplankton ID guide, can you try to identify which phytoplankton these could be? Picture credit: Sam Nadell
  • Color in your plankton, if you would like. Phytoplankton are often green (just like most plants on land!) but also come in a variety of colors.

Vocabulary

  • Food Chain: The flow of energy from plants and animals to other plants and animals through eating. A food chain can visually show the relationship between different plants and animals.
  • Plankton: Organisms that live in aquatic environments and cannot fully move against currents
  • Photic Zone: The region of water at the surface that receives enough sunlight for plants to perform photosynthesis
  • Photosynthesis: The process by which plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy and oxygen
  • Phytoplankton: Primary producing organisms that live and drift in aquatic environments
  • Zooplankton: Animals that live in aquatic environments and drift with currents or moving water

Keep Learning!

  • Check out Pacific Shellfish Institute’s What’s Blooming This Week? Plankton Monitoring Events and find out what phytoplankton are living in Budd Inlet this summer!
  • Not all phytoplankton are good for the environment. Find out more about harmful algal blooms (HABs) and their impact on Washington state with NOAA’s SoundToxins page.
  • Share pictures of your plankton with us on Instagram! Use the hashtag #GREENfromhome or find us at @southsoundgreen.

South Sound GREEN (Global Rivers Environmental Education Network) is a watershed education program in Thurston County that educates, empowers and connects thousands of local students in watershed studies annually. Through South Sound GREEN, participants engage in science and engineering practices related to water quality in South Sound. For more information, visit southsoundgreen.org.

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