Dr Dave Conway has spent a lifetime studying zooplankton and over the last ten years has been bringing together identification information from hundreds of original sources into a single resource for anyone with an interest in the zooplankton of north European seas. Kelvin Boot spoke to Dave Conway to find out what lay behind the compilation of the guide to marine zooplankton of southern Britain.
KB: What was the catalyst for compiling the guide?
DC: The zooplankton of the northern European seas has probably been studied more than that of any other region in the world, and whilst there are some basic zooplankton guides available for this area, they are mainly for students and cannot be used for accurate species level identification. So, there was no single, comprehensive, taxonomic guide to the range of species and larval stages found, available to researchers. Taxonomic information was out there, but it was spread through a wide range of monographs, scientific papers and some group identification guides. If you are a researcher working across a broad spectrum of species, unearthing that literature was very difficult, unless you had access to excellent library facilities, because much of this material is very old or out of print.
KB: And Plymouth has such a library?
DC: Yes, the National Marine Biological Library has grown since the very beginning of the Marine Biological Association (MBA) and amongst its nearly 15,000 books, 80,000 reprints and almost 5,000 serial titles, there is a huge amount of information about plankton. Plymouth, in south-west Britain, is also ideally located for plankton studies, with currents bringing oceanic zooplankton into the English Channel, so the range of species sampled actually covers the majority found over the shallower parts of the northern European continental shelf with the exception of the Mediterranean. Plymouth is also one of very few centres in northern Europe where comprehensive long-term data on the local marine zooplankton and marine fauna in general, are available, and continue to be collected by the MBA and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.
KB: Compiling the guide must have been something of a labour of love?
DC: Yes, I have been studying plankton for more than five decades and worked on this guide over the last ten years as time allowed, so it is the result of many, many months of searching out the sources, correlating and comparing the information, updating the taxonomy, then bringing it all together in a form that can be used. I am the compiler who has drawn together the results of painstaking research carried out by an army of plankton researchers over the last 100 years or more. Without them I could not have begun, let alone finished the task, and I would also acknowledge the MBA for encouraging me to bring the information together as a contribution to the Natural Environment Research Council 2025 Strategic Research Programme.
KB: Who is the guide for?
DC: The idea when I first started was as an identification resource just for Plymouth researchers and students working on English Channel zooplankton, but I decided to extend it to include species that have been found in adjacent waters. The result is a comprehensive guide to almost all the north European shelf species that is useful to any researcher, or indeed anyone with an interest in zooplankton.
KB: The result is impressive, three volumes and 572 pages.
DC: Yes, it is now pretty comprehensive as a guide to our zooplankton. The commonest truly planktonic species and the most widely studied groups are covered in most detail, but some information is also included on benthic, epibenthic and parasitic species that are sampled occasionally. For all groups there is at least information on their morphology, guidance on their identification and, most importantly, bibliographies giving other identification resources, which were consulted during compiling the guide. Rather than wait for everything to be completed, we decided to publish the guide in three parts to make the information available as quickly as possible.
The guide to the marine zooplankton of southern Britain is in three parts, all freely available online.
KB: And all of this is free to download?
DC: Absolutely. There has never been a more crucial time to study plankton, as the ocean and its inhabitants face the challenges posed by climate change, ocean acidification, microplastics and multiple other stressors. Zooplankton are amongst the first organisms to be affected by even small changes, so providing early indications that things might be going wrong or spotting changes in distributions relies on accurate identification. These guides provide a ‘one-stop-shop’ for plankton identification in north European seas. I hope they make life easier for those already working on plankton and encourage the next generation to delve into this usually hidden, but always fascinating world.
The guide is available on the Plymouth Marine Science Electronic Archive (PlyMSEA). Reference: The marine zooplankton of southern Britain, Dr Dave Conway, edited by Anthony W G John.