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What is subtropical plankton doing in Arctic waters?

The subtropical plankton in Arctic waters are likely the result of an isolated pulse of water that carried them outside their natural habitat, say scientists.

Plankton from equatorial waters found in the Arctic Ocean in 2010, from left to right: Dictyocoryne truncatum and Didymocyrtis tetrathalamus.

Bjorklund et al., Jnl Micropalaeontology 2012

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Samples of plankton collected in the Arctic Ocean near Norway revealed something surprising: single-celled creatures that belonged thousands of miles to the south where the conditions are balmier.  

This may sound like a story about the surprising effects of global warming, but it isn't. At least not entirely.

That's because the researchers believe these warm-water invaders, called Radiolaria, are likely the result of an isolated pulse of water that carried them beyond the usual extent of the northbound Gulf Stream, a current that travels from the Gulf of Mexico into the northern Atlantic Ocean.

Radiolaria have ornate, glassy shells, and they eat algae and other microscopic organisms. Different species live in different temperature ranges. [Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures]

In 2010, a ship operated by the Norwegian Polar Institute collected plankton samples northwest of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. Of the 145 types of organisms in these samples, 98 came from farther south, as far as the tropics.


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