A free, online tool created to make complex plankton datasets easier and more accessible for all, can help scientists understand more about the health of marine life.

The Plankton Lifeform Extraction Tool (PLET) brings together separate plankton datasets into one central database and formats the data into pre-defined lifeforms, making it easier for marine biologists to access robust, reliable plankton data.

This data will give a more accurate picture of the spatial and temporal location of ocean plankton and in turn provide data and critical information to inform policy, public interest and scientific discovery.

The online tool, hosted by the Archive for Marine Species and Habitats Data (DASSH) was developed by researchers from the Marine Biological Association with 15 partners across Europe with the research paper now published in the online library of Earth System Science Data.

Lead author, Dr Clare Ostle from the Marine Biological Association says “This has been many years in the making, and it’s great to see it come together. Plankton underpin so many important processes in the marine world, and making that data more user-friendly and accessible is key to answering important questions.”

Plankton form the base of the marine food web, help to regulate the ocean chemistry and provide approximately half of the world’s oxygen.

Because plankton have short life cycles, drift freely in the ocean and have wide distributions, they are sensitive indicators to climate change, and therefore play an important role for scientists monitoring changes in ocean biodiversity. 

Although there are a number of programmes that monitor plankton, the lack of direct comparison between datasets means that assessing plankton changes has been difficult and limited.

The PLET organises European plankton datasets into functional groups – ‘lifeforms’ based on shared biological traits. By arranging this data into lifeform groupings, more can be learnt about the health of marine ecosystems.

Dr Mike Best from The Environment Agency said: “Having data from so many organisations in one place allows us to accurately access the health of the plankton in our seas and take appropriate actions to protect and preserve the food webs they sustain.”

The PLET was built in partnership with the Marine Biological Association, the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (now working in partnership as Marine Research Plymouth) and 13 universities and research institutes across the UK, and Europe.

Currently, PLET is used in the North East Atlantic and North Sea but the research team hope that the free and easily accessible tool will encourage marine biologists all over the world to input and access data. 

Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop from the University of Plymouth said:  “We are fortunate in the UK to have so many consistent plankton time-series. Because PLET allows us to interpret these data holistically for the first time, we can now provide increasingly robust evidence for policy makers to make decisions. Maintaining these datasets is key to progressing our understanding of plankton change and managing our seas sustainably.”

The PLET currently holds 155,000 samples containing over 44 million plankton records collected across Europe between 1924 and 2017. The longest time series dataset was collected from the Marine Biological Associations’ Young Fish Trawl survey starting in 1924.

Project co-ordinator for DASSH Dan Lear said: “Drawing on the expertise and unique infrastructure that the MBA has developed as a MEDIN Data Archive Centre and UK node of OBIS; we have been able to deliver a scalable and robust toolset to support informed policy making.”

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Dec 7, 2021 By nerblo