Pacific Pup: The California Coast According to Annette

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Under a Scope

What’s green, lives in packs of over a million, and sometimes glows in the dark? Plankton, of course! The power of these microscopic organisms is astounding: their abundance determines the health of our oceans, and their exponentially large numbers can be seen from satellite photographs of the earth. Plankton are like the “grass” of the sea, acting as the first level of the food chain. Without these photosynthetic floaters, the oceans as they are today would simply not exist.
How in the world does one sketch these microscopic creatures, you ask? The answer is that it’s impossible to draw plankton in the field without a microscope. I was lucky enough to have the chance to do this in my undergraduate adventures as a biology major. I worked on a pier owned by Cal Poly State University in Avila Beach, and part of my job was to take water samples and identify the different types of plankton in San Luis Bay. There is absolutely nothing quite like looking at a live sample of ocean water under a microscope. The amount of diversity and activity in just one drop of water will blow you away. I fell in love with this unsuspected world of tiny life forms, especially after learning about the impact they have on the earth’s oceans.
Another fun fact about many kinds of plankton is that they emit light at night when they are excited, a fascinating biological phenomenon known as bioluminescence (I won’t get into the heavy science of it all, I just know they glow!). Some marine animals, like squid and octopi, sequester plankton within their skin to make their bodies glow. The light emitted matches that of the moon, so when squid and octopi hunt at night, their silhouettes are hidden from their prey. Isn’t that amazing?
Some plankton are enclosed in “glass houses,” protective cases made of silica. These glass barriers have beautifully intricate patterns that weren’t fully understood until observed under an electron microscope. I am always shocked by the complexity of even the smallest life-forms on Earth. Patterns in nature (big and small) continually inspire me to experiment with my artwork. Check out some of the amazing sculptures by Louise Hibbert that recreate planktonic forms.
It is extremely challenging to identify plankton down to a species without a high-powered microscope. Thus, in this sketch I included some common and beautiful genera of plankton that I would see in the San Luis Bay. Their geometric shapes are so much fun to draw, each taking on its own tiny personality.
See you at the beach!
Annette Filice
(Scientific Illustrator Intern)

Sketch Notes:
Under A Scope
Some plankton like diatoms have complex surfaces with beautiful symmetric patterns. Many types of plankton have “glass houses” made of tiny plates of silica that fit together like puzzle pieces. Plankton often emit light when excited, a fascinating phenomena known as bioluminescence.