Tiny Giants of the Sea

June 2016
Jaime Blair, Communications Consultant at Bigelow Laboratory
Nearly invisible marine microbes play a vital role in life at sea and on land

Stories of mysterious creatures lurking deep in the sea have long captivated our imaginations and stirred our curiosity. Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, is on a mission to show that truth is stranger than fiction—in a big way.

Tiny Giants: Marine Microbes Revealed on a Grand Scale is a photographic adventure featuring colorized and enlarged images of nearly invisible plants and animals that dominate the ocean. Their beauty will leave you awestruck.

Making the Invisible Visible

“Our idea behind the Tiny Giants images was to pique people’s imaginations about the invisible creatures that we study that are vital to our very existence,” says Dr. Benjamin Twining, director of research and education at Bigelow Laboratory.

But how do you stir up interest and raise awareness about organisms so small that hundreds of thousands can live in just a single drop of seawater?

You make the invisible visible.

Dr. Peter Countway, Laura Lubelczyk, and other Bigelow Laboratory researchers used three types of microscopes—compound-light, confocal, and scanning electron—to capture 18 incredible images of marine microbes. Each of the high-powered microscopes provides a unique perspective and allows us to peer into this invisible world, but it takes a skilled and practiced hand to create the magical images seen in Tiny Giants. . The incredible magnifications --- some of the images are as big as four feet wide by five feet tall --- offer a unique glimpse at the intricacies of these marine-dwelling microbes; their exquisite shapes and patterns appear otherworldly.

Marine Microbes Matter

Marine microbes are the foundation of life on Earth: They produce half of the oxygen we breathe and are the base of the food chain. In fact, ninety-eight percent of the ocean’s biomass is made up of microbial life. Given their vital role in planetary processes and balance, it is important that we understand how ocean health issues such as ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures affect these organisms. In addition, marine microbes may lead to new advances in pharmaceuticals, fuel sources, and nutritional supplements. Bigelow Laboratory is the only independent basic research institution in the world that focuses on microbial oceanography—and its researchers want to spread the word about the world-class discoveries taking place at their state-of-the-art campus.

Marine microbes aren’t all business—they also do some pretty neat stuff

Bioengineering, Diatoms, single-celled algae ,diatom, Coscinodiscus, skeleton, glass, silica skeleton,

Tiny Giant #3: Bioengineering a solar panel
Diatoms—single-celled algae—are giants of the microbial world; some are even visible to the naked eye. The cylindrical diatom Coscinodiscus has a skeleton made out of silica, a type of glass. This silica skeleton is remarkably efficient at harvesting energy from the Sun; so much in fact, that engineers are copying their complex architecture to optimize solar panel designs.

Pteropods, Limacina helicina, sea butterflies, Pteropod, aragonite

Tiny Giant #5: Last flight of the sea butterfly
Pteropods may sound like a type of dinosaur, but they are actually sea snails. The species Limacina helicina uses wing-like feet to swim, and their graceful fluttering movements have earned them the nickname “sea butterflies.” Pteropods’ coiled shells are beautiful but vulnerable. They are in danger as increased ocean acidity is dissolving their shells made from the calcium carbonate mineral aragonite. This could affect the marine food chain because pteropods are a major food source for small fish and krill, which go on to feed large fish, whales, and sea birds.

Copepod, Keystone species, mini-crustaceans

Tiny Giant #6: Keystone species
Copepod may not be a household name, but their numbers are impressive—they are the most abundant group of animals on Earth and make up over 21,000 species. These mini-crustaceans have no boundaries: They are found everywhere, from puddles on mountain peaks to trenches on the ocean floor. They even hang out in carnivorous pitcher plants. Copepods are an important part of the North Atlantic right whale’s diet; during their feeding season, a 140,000-pound right whale will eat over 2,500 pounds of copepods per day.

Ostracods, tiny shrimp-like crustaceans, bioluminescence

Tiny Giant #9: Revealing the past
Ostracods—tiny shrimp-like crustaceans also known as sea fireflies—give off a bright blue light through a chemical process called bioluminescence. In World War II, Japanese seamen dried and ground ostracods then mixed them with water to make portable lamps that helped them read maps in dim light. But that’s not the only story ostracods have to tell: They have one of the most complete fossil records and offer a valuable look at past seawater conditions.

Spreading the Word

Tiny Giants has been making the rounds throughout the Northeast U.S. since January 2015. The exhibit has been featured in libraries, schools, and art galleries. The response has been as impressive as the images themselves.

“It was delightful to wander amongst the crowd and hear people exclaim about the beauty and wonder of marine microbes,” said Darlene Trew Crist, director of communications at Bigelow Laboratory, at the sold-out showing at District Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. Tiny Giants has a full summer schedule in 2016 including a World Oceans Day Summit on June 8th in Newport, Rhode Island, presented by Sailors for the Sea and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

Think Outside the Box

To promote unique, exciting ways to teach and learn, the Tiny Giants exhibit resided at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, throughout the 2015 fall semester. This innovative collaboration was used not only in biology and environmental science departments, but also in theater, dance, art, and humanities.

Educators used the exhibit to connect concepts of invisible marine microbes to their coursework. “We were excited to show the images in the Tiny Giants exhibition on campus last fall,” said Lori G. Kletzer, Colby Provost and Dean of Faculty. “Colby's strategic partnership with Bigelow Laboratory provides world-class opportunities in marine science and climate science for our students—we knew that. The unique aesthetic for examining the natural microbial world through these photos completely reinforced the interdisciplinary approach that both our institutions value so highly.”

The wonders of the microscopic world aren’t reserved for scientists. With Tiny Giants, Bigelow Laboratory is making the mysterious marine underworld accessible to everybody. 

Take Action

You can make a difference. Follow these steps to create a positive future for the ocean.

Take Action
  • Learn more about marine microbes and the cutting-edge research going on at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences at www.bigelow.org.
  • Check out the Tiny Giants schedule to see if there is an event or exhibit in your area: https://tinygiants.bigelow.org/schedule.html.
  • Next time you are out on the water, take a moment to think about the organized and diverse communities of tiny sea creatures that make our life possible, and spread the word.
  • Find a World Oceans Day event near you: http://www.worldoceansday.org/events/.