Swarm of Grapefruit-Sized Robots Mimics Ocean Life, Allows Researchers to Study Plankton

A swarm of tiny, autonomous underwater robots developed by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego has given the scientific community a brand new way of studying one of the most abundant life forms in the ocean: plankton.

Scripps oceanographer Jules Jaffe designed and constructed the robots, also known as miniature autonomous underwater explorers (M-AUEs). They were developed with the intent of studying small-scale environmental processes happening every day in the ocean. They’re equipped with a multitude of sensors that help gather data about the surrounding ocean. This is all done while the robots “swim” up and down by adjusting their buoyancy to maintain a static depth.

A new study published in Nature Communications follows 16 grapefruit-sized versions of these robots that were programmed to copy the swimming behaviors of plankton. Peter Franks, an oceanographer working with Jaffe on the study, described them as “planktonic singles bars,” in that the dense congregations of plankton have long been suspected to aid in feeding and reproduction in these life forms.

These tools have given researchers a whole new way to study plankton in the ocean, and while the technology is still a work in progress, it has certainly opened a new door. However, swarming isn’t the only aspect of plankton being studied right now.

A new study has taken climate change into consideration when studying levels of mercury in ocean life, and particularly what those levels of mercury are doing to plankton populations.

Phytoplankton make up the base of the food chain in the ocean, and if the current rate of waste going into the ocean is maintained, they could be replaced with bacteria. This could create a major shift in the food chain, and result in higher levels of mercury in sea life everywhere.

Eric Bjorn, associate professor at Umea Uniersity in Sweden and leader of the study, explained that the study uncovered a phenomenon that hadn’t been considered before. “The results are critical in the prediction of how global climate changes can affect the exposure of methylmercury to ecosystems, and humans,” he said in a public statement.

Approximately 99% pf ocean plastic is unaccounted for, meaning we don’t know the extent of its impact on marine left. One thing is certain: the research has only just begun.

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