Small but mighty – the importance of the ocean’s tiniest inhabitants

01 Feb 2024 | 73

New research sheds light on tiny plankton, which can make up more than 70% of the plankton biomass found in the ocean.

Tiny plankton – measuring less than 20µm (or 0.02mm) in diameter – make up the majority of plankton in the ocean and play a critical role in the planet’s health, according to new research.

However, scientists say challenges in identifying them have led to them becoming a silent majority that is currently being overlooked when it comes to global ocean policy.


The study is one of the first to explore the abundance and importance of these tiny ocean inhabitants around the UK coastline, with the technology capable of monitoring them only having been introduced in around 2010.

However, that monitoring has shown that in some instances, 99.98% of plankton abundance – and 71% of plankton biomass – is derived from these tiny cells.

The research has also shown they can be impacted directly by changes in ocean temperatures and nutrients, in addition to other environmental shifts taking place as a result of climate change.

Published in the journal Ecological Indicators, the study involved a number of the UK’s leading plankton scientists and was carried out using cutting edge surveying and identification techniques.

“You hear of phrases like searching for a needle in a haystack, but this takes it to a whole new level. Identifying something that measures 0.02mm in the ocean is an immense challenge, but an increasingly important one at a time of huge environmental pressures. These plankton may be tinier than most people can realistically imagine, but they underpin the entire marine food web and play a critical role in producing the oxygen our planet needs. We need to take this silent majority more seriously.”

Abigail McQuatters-Gollop
Associate Professor of Marine Conservation and lead author on the study

Larger plankton have been used for decades to monitor ecosystem productivity and biodiversity, but four UK plankton surveys – including the Continuous Plankton Recorder survey – have also sampled tiny plankton in the past 14 years.

The researchers involved in the current study used the results of those surveys, which focused on the English Channel and Scottish coast, to investigate six groups of tiny plankton including two groups of heterotrophic bacteria.

Doing that involved a combination of flow cytometry – a laser-based technique used to detect and analyse the chemical and physical characteristics of cells or particles – and light microscopes.

This provided evidence of the abundance of tiny plankton, with that data then being cross-referenced against known changes in environmental conditions to assess how they were being impacted.

As a result, the researchers have recommended that tiny plankton groups should be used to inform biodiversity indicators that meet policy obligations under the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), (Oslo-Paris Convention) OSPAR strategies, and the UK Marine Strategy.

They have also called for long-term monitoring of tiny plankton across multiple sites to ensure that policy decisions are based on accurate local and global evidence. 

a graphic explaining the research into tiny plankton

featured in the research paper a graphic explaining the research into tiny plankton

“We have been able to connect these tiny plankton to meaningful indicators for policy use by measuring how human-driven environmental pressures affect the timing of their growth. This has only been possible by taking consistent, long-term measurements of these types of plankton.” Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Research Fellow at the Marine Biological Association (MBA) and study co-lead Dr Rowena Stern.

The full study – McQuatters-Gollop et alThe silent majority: pico- and nanoplankton as ecosystem health indicators for marine policy – is published in Ecological Indicators, DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2024.111650. It involved researchers from: the University of Plymouth; The Marine Biological Association (MBA); Plymouth Marine Laboratory; Environment Agency; Marine Scotland Science; Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas); Scottish Association for Marine Science.

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