The Phytoplankton Emiliania huxleyi
Coccospheres up close and personal
IMAGES: Natural History Museum, BBC, Rutgers/Woods Hole
Like other coccolithophores, Emiliania huxleyi is a single-celled phytoplankton covered with uniquely ornamented calcite disks called coccoliths (also informally known as liths or scales). [WP]
E. huxleyi has a global population of about 7 x 1022 cells scattered across the world ocean and adapted to a wide range of environments.
- It is one of the youngest species on Earth, appearing only around 250,000 years ago, about the same time as Homo sapiens.
- It can grow explosively to produce massive blooms of milky water detectable from space.
- It has a Cheshire Cat-like ability to escape from trouble by changing form.
[Source: Natural History Museum, London]
BOTTOM IMAGE: Scanning electron microscope image of a partially dissolved Emiliania huxleyi coccosphere
Ocean acidification poses a potential threat to all marine organisms which produce calcareous skeletons.
Burning of fossil fuels and deforestation is releasing immense volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and around 25% is then dissolved into the sea. This is shifting the chemistry of sea water, making it slightly more acidic and making calcification more difficult. [NHM]