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SAEON student receives training at UK Phytoplankton identification workshop

By Luca Stirnimann, PhD student, University of Cape Town
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I was fortunate to attend the 4th International Marine Phytoplankton Taxonomy Workshop hosted and organised by the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS), Plymouth (UK) from 3 to 14 July 2017.

The workshop was aimed at early career scientists, technicians, postgraduates and marine ecologists with a basic knowledge of marine phytoplankton. It focused on the identification of key marine phytoplankton in the Atlantic Ocean and European waters, but also useful for species from other oceans.

Sir Alister Hardy Foundation

SAHFOS is an international non-profit organisation that operates the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey. The CPR is a robust and reliable instrument designed to be towed by ships (research vessels or from merchant ships on their normal routes), capturing plankton samples over large areas of the ocean.

After the collection, SAHFOS taxonomists identify plankton species in the samples, creating one of the biggest datasets in the World of Plankton time series, since the first collections date back to 1931.

CPR surveys are mainly concentrated in the North Atlantic Ocean. However, it is also towed in the Southern Ocean by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) of the Republic of South Africa and by several other countries.

The CPR was invented and designed by Sir Alister Hardy (10 February 1896 - 22 May 1985), an English marine biologist and expert on marine ecosystems (particularly in zooplankton and fisheries). He invented the CPR on board the RRS Discovery during a voyage to the Antarctic between 1925-1927, during which he likely visited Cape Town, as it is shown in his paintings (see photos).


Sir Alister Hardy deploying his CPR for the very first time off the stern of SS Albatross in 1931 (with the kind permission of SAHFOS) and a painting of Table Mountain by Sir Alister Hardy

The training

The workshop extended over two intensive weeks in which the attendees attended lectures and lab sessions with taxonomists and technical experts. It was stimulating to see people from around the world teaching and learning how to collect and process the samples, to use the innovative instruments and identify morphological characteristics of the organisms.


An image of the world showing routes sampled by the CPR from 1948 to the present day (with the kind permission of SAHFOS)

The main phytoplankton groups were well taught by Dr Diana Sarno from the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn di Napoli (Diatoms), Dr Alexandra Kraberg from Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) (Dinoflagellates) and Dr Ian Probert from the Station Biologique de Roscoff (nano-, micro and picoplankton). But the training would not have been complete without the input from other experts and other attendees, whom I thank for the great experience.

Why Taxonomy?

Taxonomy is important for several reasons: 1) How can we understand ecosystem structure without knowing the species present? 2) How can we control or detect the invasion of new invasive species in these environments? 3) How can we determine the variation in abundance and the extinction or the absence of some organisms? 4) What is the life stage of an organism in those conditions?

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Luca Stirnimann operating the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) at Plymouth University, taking micrographs of various phytoplankton organisms

A SEM micrograph of dinoflagellates and diatoms                                                                                                                                     

“Art stamp” of plankton organisms by Luca Stirnimann during the “art session” of the workshop                                                          

Taxonomy matters, but during the last few decades the number of taxonomists in the research centres around the world have decreased significantly because these skills are considered “obsolete”, expensive, time-consuming and thought to be replaceable by innovative techniques, e.g. genetic analyses. Fortunately, the science community has re-evaluated the importance of taxonomy in plankton identification, combining morphological taxonomy and modern techniques, thereby guaranteeing the acquisition of more data and knowledge in this complex field.


Group of attendees, lecturers and organisers of the 4th Phytoplankton Identification Workshop in Plymouth (UK)

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