Radiolarians - what's that?

Have you ever heard about radiolarians? Although you didn't see any on your latest dive, you were actually surrounded my millions of them - too small to be seen by the naked eye.

Posted on May 22, 2006

I recently came across some very interesting books with plates made by Ernst haeckel, a German scientist who from around 1860 and onwards made some spectacular drawings of radiolarians and other planktonic species.

Staggering numbers

Radiolarians are microscopic, single-celled animals which are found in staggering numbers in seawater and bottom sediments.

As many as 9.000 individuals can be found in one single cubic metre of North Atlantic seawater, and lime-free bottom sediment can hold as many as 150.000 of them per gram!

Even though we don't see the radiolarians while diving we are actually surrounded by them at any time.

The base of the food chain

The radiolarians are zooplankton which graze on the smallest plants in the ocean, the diatoms. Without these microscopic organisms life in the ocean would be impossible, because they form the base of the entire ecosystem.

The radiolarians are in turn eaten by larger plankton and microscopic crustaceans, and this repeats itself all the way up to the largest fish and marine mammals.

Although we're much bigger than radiolarians, it's a sobering thought that when we enter the water we are no longer on top of the food chain...

Exquisite plates

The plates are collected in the books Art Forms from the Ocean and Art Forms in Nature, both brimming with exquisite drawings of these strange lifeforms.

The radiolarians produce intricate mineral skeletons, which are true works of art in themselves. The skeletons typically have a central capsule separating the inner and outer part of the animal, called endoplasma and ektoplasma.

Please click for a slideshow with some of the plates from Art Forms from the Ocean:

Ernst Haeckel was a very skilled artist and illustrator, but he did not just draw microscopic plants and animals - he was very interested in life in the oceans in general.

Darwinian advocate

As a biologist, zoologist and professor of anatomy Ernst Haeckel had extensive knowledge about what was found below the surface.

He is recognized as one of the most important advocates of Darwin's theory of evolution in Germany during the 19th century.

His main interest was the process of evolution, and many of the incredible forms of nature can be found in his books. If you want to know more about the books, they can be found at among other places.

» Click here to read more about Ernst Haeckel, radiolarians and diatoms

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