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Tiny Planktons Get 'Drunk' on Toxic Algae, Making Them Act Strangely

May 11, 2016 04:54 AM EDT
Red Tide Threatens Gulf of Mexico Fish
Algal blooms, or "red tides," are caused by the bloom of toxic red dinoflagellates.
(Photo : NOAA/Wikimedia Commons)

Looks like humans are not the only ones acting strangely after getting intoxicated.

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, a species of plankton was observed to become "drunk" after slurping toxic algae.

While not intentional, the tiny ocean animals were observed to make questionable actions when intoxicated, putting them at higher risk to be eaten by their predators.

This tiny animal is a common species of copepod or shrimp-like creatures that are significant members of the food web, as reported by the National Geographic. As the most abundant multicelled creature on our planet, these tiny animals are like "baby food" to growing fish.

In this study, the species in question is the Temora longicornis, which showed an interesting fondness to the Alexandrium fundyense, poisonous algae off the coast of New England. These copepods don't usually eat these algae, but because of unusual weather, algal blooms or "red tides" have been more common.

In their study, lead author Rachel Lasley-Rasher and her team gave these copepods some algae to slurp in the laboratory. They seemed to be perfectly normal until they started to act strangely.

The tiny animals began to swim much faster and in a straight line. Darting at this rate, it becomes easier for their predators to take notice of them and eat them.

Smithsonian reported that the researchers still can't pinpoint how the copepods were able to develop a liking and resistance to the toxic algae, but years of coexistence may be the reason.

As for its effect on the food chain, David Fields of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences told National Geographic that the toxins may travel to higher levels of the food web -- to the fish that eat them that we eventually consume, too.

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