The Gulf Stream (GS) is a powerful ocean current transporting warm seawater, nutrients and organisms from the Gulf of Mexico northward along US east coast and across the North Atlantic. Evidence from climate science implies that ocean circulation, and the GS, may be weakening. If true, there will likely be an increase in storms and floods, regions with lower levels of oxygen, and the collapse of essential stocks of marine plankton. The numerous forms of plankton, from the impressive diversity of micro- to macroscopic animals that spend their entire lives in the water column to those only in the water column as transient larval stages of coastal and seafloor species, are essential to oceanic food webs and biogeochemical cycling between the atmosphere and ocean. Therefore, marine plankton are critical to the health of our planet. Although plankton represent the broadest diversity of known animal groups worldwide, they are notably underrepresented in public exhibits, classrooms, educational media and art. This is surprising, since planktonic animals inhabit nearly 71% of the surface of our planet.
We propose a collaborative project to collect, image, barcode, metabarcode and voucher a broad diversity of planktonic species found within the top two-hundred meters of the GS. As a focused group, researchers from the Department of Invertebrate Zoology will sample the Florida Current region of the Gulf Stream intensively twice a year for 2 years. Field expeditions and laboratory work will take place at the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, FL. This project will unite the taxonomic expertise of all IZ marine curators and collaborators with the technological expertise of GGI, CBOL and MarineGEO. These efforts will substantially improve NMNH collections through four important additions to the collections: 1. numerous life history stages, 2. planktonic forms for all major invertebrate taxa, 3. genome-grade tissues for research, and 4. creation of a gallery of digital images showcasing planktonic diversity of the Gulf Stream. This project will also provide the material for both collaborative and individual manuscripts by IZ researchers, including: Comparisons of our findings with MarineGEO efforts from Panama to the Chesapeake Bay; Planktonic species diversity and biogeography; Hyperiid amphipod brain morphology; Filling knowledge gaps with missing life history stages; and contributions toward a revised edition of The Atlas of Marine Invertebrate Larvae.
Overall, we will inspire students of all ages to care about ocean health with our images of GS planktonic invertebrates showcased during a Smithsonian Science How webcast, the climate change focused art exhibit Clima 2017, and extensive use on NMNH’s social media, Smithsonian Insider and the Ocean Portal. Our collection of high-resolution images and DNA fingerprints will be an invaluable ‘before picture’ of biodiversity prior to the projected alteration of the Gulf Stream transport system. Nowis an appropriate time for the Smithsonian to continue its tradition as a world leader in describing the diversity (what) and distribution (where) of life on Earth, including the microscopic mariners of its single largest habitat, the world’s ocean.