Picture of red tide taken from the NOAA Research Vessel Ron Brown
Click on image for full size
Courtesy of NOAA

Robots Watch out for Poisonous Plankton!
News story originally written on January 30, 2003

Tiny plankton that live in the sea may look harmless but certain types are able to kill fish, poison seafood and even choke swimmers. Now robots have been developed to search the seas for the dangerous plankton!

Plankton spend most of their life floating in ocean water. They cannot swim like fish, but instead float wherever the currents take them. The harmful types of plankton are single-celled, microscopic creatures called algae that photosynthesize like plants.

Most types of algae are very important for life in the sea because they are food for animals like clams, fish and whales. However, a few types of algae have poisons within them that are harmful to other creatures. When the dangerous types of algae grow so fast that they darken the ocean water with a reddish cloud called a red tide, they are dangerous to animals that eat them. When people eat seafood that ate the poisonous algae, they get sick too.

Special underwater robots have been released into the Gulf of Mexico to look for dangerous algae. The robots are called autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs. They look like small airplanes that glide underwater. They carry sensors to detect algae and record salinity and temperature of the water so that scientists can study when the red tides form.

Researchers hope that with the information from their robots and satellite images, they will be able to warn people living near the coast if a giant cloud of algae is in the ocean near them.

Last modified January 31, 2003 by Lisa Gardiner.

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