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UW-built device reveals invisible world teeming with microscopic algae
Date:10/6/2010

three minutes or two samples per mile traveled, says Jarred Swalwell, a research engineer with oceanography and lead developer. That's because the instrument taps into the system found on board most oceanographic research vessels that supplies running seawater to shipboard labs for such things as keeping specimens alive.

In this way SeaFlow collects more samples in a day than most scientists gather on an entire cruise, Swalwell says. And SeaFlow sensors and banks of computers, not scientists with traditional cytometers and microscopes, sort the characteristics of phytoplankton communities to determine what's present.

SeaFlow takes five minutes to do what used to take him two months, Ribalet says.

A prototype of the device revealed the biological hotspot off Vancouver Island and, for the first time, a marine ecotone, something oceanographers knew must exist but had no way to locate before now.

Ecotones are where different habitats overlap, where a prairie and forest meet, for example, or a river and estuary intersect. Ectones are rich with species because plants and animals from both ecosystems might be found there, as well as those adapted specifically to this hybrid environment. The ecotone discovered by Ribalet and colleagues is a 40-mile-wide region where ocean water rich with nitrates met coastal water rich with iron and where not just one, but five oceanic phytoplankton communities were detected taking full advantage of the carbon and nutrients concentrated there.

"This was just unexpected diversity," Ribalet says. "It flies in the face of the textbooks."

Ribalet and Swalwell imagine additional marine ecotones and biological hot spots could be detected if SeaFlows were installed on various ships and set up in a way to automatically alert scientists when phytoplankton abundance takes an interesting turn. Just such a SeaFlow set up has already been permanently mounted on the UW's vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson.


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Contact: Sandra Hines
shines@uw.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
Source:Eurekalert  

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