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Robotic Submarine and Plankton Sampling: Learning Seep Secrets

Jul 22, 2015 01:39 PM EDT
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Looking like two bazooka rocket launchers, a robotic submarine system recently went more than 7,053 feet into the ocean (that's pretty deep, considering that the average ocean depth was last calculated in 2010 to be 12,080 feet) and collected the first high-volume collection of plankton. Because everything in the ocean is based on them, and it has been hard in the past to go deep enough to collect them, this will spell big learning regarding the smallest organisms in the sea, researchers say. 

The scientists and engineers, from Duke University, University of Oregon and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), used a new sampling device, the SentrY Precision Robotic Impeller Driven (SyPRID). It uses spinning blades inside tubes to gently pump and gather large volumes of water. Then the microscopic organisms are run through a net system within two carbon-fiber composite tubes, a release said.

The system's gentle handling puts it ahead of previous attempts. "Part of the beauty of its design is that planktonic organisms are filtered gently so they remain intact for scientific analysis," said Cindy Van Dover, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, in a release.

The SyPRID rode atop the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry, then collected samples for a little over eight hours above a natural methane seep. Findings included 39 deep-sea larvae from 16 different types of animals. Scientists will conduct genetic and morphological analyses on them back on land, the release noted. 

"The SyPRID sampler can allow us to gain a much clearer picture of where the larvae go and where they concentrate in the deep ocean," said Craig Young, director of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB), in a release. "The uniqueness of this system is its ability to sample precise areas, at depth, for long periods of time while filtering enough volume to find the relatively rare organisms in the water."

From the organisms, scientists expect to learn more about natural methane seeps as an ecosystem, the release said. Organisms within those areas alter the quantity of methane released to the ocean surface, for example.

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @TreesWhales

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