STREAMCODE – Planktonic Diversity of the Gulf Stream

A variety of plankton images

Most of the animals that live in the Gulf Stream are small, grow and die quickly, and are found swimming or floating somewhere between the surface of the ocean and the seafloor.

Credit: Top row - Michael Boyle ; Bottom row - Karen Osborn

A powerful ocean current, the Gulf Stream, transports warm seawater, nutrients and organisms from the Gulf of Mexico northward along the U.S. East Coast and across the North Atlantic up towards Europe. The movement of ocean animals living in this moving water —called zooplankton—impacts important commercial species and the cycling of nutrients between the atmosphere and the ocean.

STREAMCODE is a joint project of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Department of Invertebrate Zoology and the Life Histories Program at the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida. The project brings together researchers from many areas to study the diversity of life found in the Gulf Stream. Four expeditions off the coast of Florida to the Gulf Stream in 2017 and 2018, will allow the team to collect Gulf Stream plankton. Then, using cutting edge technology to image and genetically characterize the tiny creatures they find, the team of scientists will gain a better understanding of what lives in the Gulf Stream and how climate change will impact the system. 

Current Research

What's in the Gulf Stream?

Our ocean contains countless forms of animals in the form of zooplankton. Like every other habitat on earth, most of the animals that live here are small, grow and die quickly, and are found swimming or floating somewhere between the surface of the ocean and the seafloor.

Zooplankton are divided into two groups, the meroplankton, which spend only a portion of their life cycle in the water column, and the holoplankton, which spend their entire lives in the water column. Both groups of plankton play extremely important roles in the survival of larger marine species, like fish and mammals, and drive the movements of the larger animals. The diversity of plankton is also essential to the extremely complex food web that drives nutrient cycling from the ocean to the atmosphere and basic services provided by the world’s ocean—like oxygen provided by the tiny plants called phytoplankton and carbon sequestration in the ocean. The Gulf Stream is also a major highway for distribution of marine animals’ young, providing continual fresh supply of the next generation of these marine animals to coastal marine communities of the North American East Coast and northern Europe.

The seafloor, nearshore and surface animals of the ocean are relatively well known to us, while the animals living offshore in the midwater are not as well studied because it is much harder to get to them, they are delicate, can’t survive much handling, and many are very small. New microscopy techniques allow us to study the details of their anatomy, both inside and out, to understand how they work. Ever-developing genetic techniques allow us to match early life stages to adults, quickly determine who is found there so that we can easily monitor through time and space, and helps us understand where the animals came from. 

A Changing Ocean

The ocean is changing. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are rising at unprecedented rates due to increased emissions of greenhouse gasses from cars, factories, electricity and a variety of other human activities. These gases trap heat, making the atmosphere warm enough for the earth to sustain an enormous diversity of life, including people. But over the past 150 years since the industrial revolution, greenhouse gases have shot up by 30 percent, rapidly raising Earth's global temperature. Higher CO2 levels have altered the chemistry of the ocean making it more acidic. The ocean plays a key role in regulating climate, absorbing more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide that humans put into the air. But the ocean is struggling to keep up with rising CO2 levels. And thousands of plant and animal species could go extinct without time to adapt to a warmer planet.

Amidst this change is evidence that ocean circulation, and the Gulf Stream, may be weakening because of the changing climate. This will likely lead to more storms and floods, regions of the ocean with lower levels of oxygen, and the collapse of essential stocks of marine plankton. All of these changes will impact marine food webs and the important services the ocean provides us, such as food, oxygen and weather regulation.

The collection of high-resolution images and DNA fingerprints from STREAMCODE will provide a picture of what Gulf Stream biodiversity looks like prior to the projected changes to the Gulf Stream transport system.

The Latest Technology

In order to document the tiny animals found in the water column of the Gulf Stream, Smithsonian researchers must go to the source. The project begins with collecting water samples full of tiny organisms in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida, using the Smithsonian Marine Station at Ft. Pierce as a home base.

Because these animals are so small—many no bigger than the tip of a pencil—it is often difficult to determine the species. That’s where DNA comes in. Scientists use the latest genetic technology (barcoding, metabarcoding, and vouchering) to determine what species are present in the Gulf Stream.

The Team

Leann BiancaniLeann Biancani is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on hyperiid amphipods, an abundant group of pelagic crustaceans. She aims to better understand the evolutionary history of their incredibly diverse eyes.

 

 

Robert BoydRobert Boyd serves as a Social Media Outreach Coordinator for the StreamCode project. He is a graduate student in American University’s MFA Film program. Through the use of wildlife film and underwater microscopy, Robert hopes to increase public interest in zooplankton and zooplankton research.

 

Michael J. BoyleMichael J. Boyle is a Staff Biologist at the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida. He is the coauthor of the StreamCode grant with Karen Osborn.  His areas of focus include the comparative development of sipunculan worms, marine invertebrate life history patterns, and the evolution and diversity of marine larval forms.

 

 

 

Allen Collins

Allen Collins is an affiliated Agency Scientist with NOAA’s National Systematics Lab and a Curator at the Smithsonian. His work focuses on the biodiversity of cnidarians and sponges.

 

 

Kate HansonKate Hanson received her PhD from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Kate's research explores the role of zooplankton in oceanic and coastal food webs. Her work includes study of the natural history and ecology of tropical marine copepods. 

 

 

 

Jerry HarasewychJerry Harasewych is Emeritus Curator of marine mollusks, and Research Zoologist at the Smithsonian. His work focuses on the systematics, biology, biogeography, and molecular evolution of gastropods with an emphasis on deep sea taxa. 

 

 

 

Elise HartillElise Hartill is an incoming graduate student at the University of Maine, in the Rhian Waller Lab. The Waller lab studies the benthic community structure in Glacier Bay National Park, with a focus on cold-water corals. Elise has previously worked in Dr. Waller’s lab, using histological techniques to study cold water-coral reproduction.

 

 

Will JaeckleWill Jaeckle is a Professor of Biology at Illinois Wesleyan University. His work focuses on the life history, development, physiology, and ecology of invertebrates and their larvae.

 

 

Chan LinChan Lin is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Osborn Lab, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He studies the nervous systems of crustaceans and insects. His current work focuses on figuring out how the brains are organized to serve a diversity of eye morphologies and adaptations in hyperiid amphipods.

 

 

 

Karen OsbornKaren Osborn is a Research Zoologist/Curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  Her research focuses on study of evolution of life in the midwater, which encompasses all the water below the surface of the ocean and above the sea floor. She is currently working on projects on hyperiid amphipods (crustaceans), tomopterid and other midwater polychaetes (annelid worms) in addition to StreamCode.  
 

 

 

Karen ReedKaren Reed is a Museum Specialist at the Smithsonian. She is responsible for the collection and data management of crustaceans in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology.

 

 

 

Katya UryupovaKatya Uryupova is passionate about the Polar Regions, and has spent most of her life in Siberia. In 2009, she received her PhD in marine biology from Moscow State University. Having Worked as a scientist in the Arctic and Antarctic regions since 2000, she is involved in a number of research projects. Her research interests range from general biology, to different aspects of human impact on the environment, to interdisciplinary research efforts.

 

 

Michael VecchioneMichael Vecchione is a NOAA Research Zoologist at the National Museum of Natural History. His work focuses on the natural history of cephalopods, deep-sea biology, and marine biodiversity.