These Tiny Creatures Can Swirl the Ocean

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Based on lab studies involving brine shrimp, researchers at Stanford University hypothesize large groups of tiny zooplankton may be useful to churn and mix ocean water in a way that sends vital nutrients closer to the surface
  • The churning of deeper ocean waters toward the surface could benefit a wide variety of marine life, such as phytoplankton, which live on or near the surface
  • Now that the downward jets have been observed in the lab, the next step would be to attempt to recreate the results in the ocean using krill or other zooplankton and shipboard measurements
  • With about 500 million tons of it available, krill makes up the largest biomass in the world; it is not only sustainable, but also a superior choice for omega-3 supplementation
  • Krill oil outpaces fish oil due to being more bioavailable, contaminant-free, potent and stable; if you are still taking fish oil, you may want to switch

By Dr. Mercola

While most of us give it little consideration, researchers are modeling ocean circulation in labs to figure out potential ways to improve the health of the Earth’s largest bodies of water. Now, it turns out oceanographers may be able to harness the energy of zooplankton — some of the tiniest ocean creatures — to potentially influence nutrient flows, ocean chemistry and maybe even the climate.

While the work to date has been conducted in tall tanks inside research labs, it’s possible field studies may one day validate an important new role for some of the most abundant animals on the planet. As large groups of brine shrimp, for example, swim up all at once, they force ocean water down, effectively churning and mixing it. This action is important because ocean water, due to differences in salinity and temperature, stratifies into layers that don’t mix easily.

Researchers suggest if large-scale turbulence by creatures such as krill could be accomplished in the ocean, it could potentially affect the climate. If you are not yet a fan of krill, this may be just one more reason to appreciate these amazing coldwater crustaceans. The best reason to love krill, in my opinion, is because they provide one of the most beneficial forms of animal-based omega-3 fatty acids. Among other benefits, omega-3s promote heart, joint, skin and vision health.

Turbulence Caused by Shrimp and Krill May Have Beneficial Effect on Oceans

A study published in the journal Nature1 suggests turbulence generated by tiny marine life, when harnessed on a large scale, could be a significant factor in nutrient transport and ocean chemistry. Using tall tanks and LED and laser lights, scientists from Stanford University were able to create a simulated environment to study the migration patterns of brine shrimp (Artemia salina). Because they are attracted to light, scientists used the lights to draw the brine shrimp, also known as sea monkeys, up to the surface.

In the process of swimming up, researchers noticed the shrimp were able to generate swirling eddies that forced water down. Though the effects of individual brine shrimp on saltwater mixing would be negligible due to their tiny size, large groups of them could make a decidedly different impact.

This is believed to be so because the flows generated by the group of shrimp were powerful enough to mix the tank's salt gradient. "They weren't just displacing fluid that then returned to its original location," said Stanford University graduate student Isabel Houghton, coauthor of the study. "Everything mixed irreversibly."2

According to ScienceNews,3 brine shrimp moving vertically in two lab tanks created small eddies that aggregated into a large jet powerful enough to mix what would otherwise remain isolated layers of ocean water with different densities. With a fluid velocity of about 0.4 to 0.8 inches (1 to 2 centimeters) per second, the jet enabled shallow waters to mix with deeper, saltier waters.

Given the successful lab outcomes, in-ocean turbulence generated by multitudes of tiny sea creatures such as krill could potentially be powerful enough to extend hundreds of meters beneath the water’s surface.4 Said the study authors, “The results illustrate the potential for marine zooplankton to considerably alter the physical and biogeochemical structure of the water column, with potentially widespread effects owing to their high abundance in climatically important regions of the ocean.”5

Next Step Is to Try to Replicate Downward Jets in the Ocean

The current research builds on a 2014 study6 written, in part, by fluid dynamics expert John Dabiri, Ph.D., a professor of civil and environmental engineering and mechanical engineering at Stanford University, that introduced the tank and lighting setup used in the current work. “The original thinking is these animals would flap their appendages and create little eddies about the same size as their bodies,” said Dabiri.7 

Using LED and laser lights to simulate the vertical migration brine shrimp undergo daily — rising up at night to find food on the water’s surface and diving down during daytime hours to avoid potential predators — Dabiri and his colleagues noticed the tens of thousands of lab shrimp migrated in close proximity.

“As one animal swims upward, it’s kicking backward,” Dabiri noted.8 As such, each parcel of water is kicked downward by another shrimp and another and so on. The total effect is a downward rush that gets stronger as the vertical migration continues.

The water movement eventually extends nearly as deep as the entire migrating group, which when applied in the ocean could generate effects for hundreds of meters. The researchers believe if the creatures can effectively mix simulated ocean-water layers in the lab, the chances are good they can do the same in the ocean.9

The lab method helped magnify the efforts of individual shrimp and generated a swirling effect potentially useful in delivering nutrient-rich deep waters to the ocean’s surface. Once there, these deeper waters could benefit a wide variety of marine life, such as phytoplankton, which live near the surface. Now that the downward jets have been observed, Dabiri suggests the next step would be to attempt to replicate the lab results in the ocean using shipboard measurements.10

The future work would involve locating and tracking swarms of krill in locations as diverse as the California coast and the frigid waters of the Antarctic.11 In ocean conditions, the power of tiny creatures such as krill are expected to generate similar effects as those noted when using brine shrimp.

It’s possible, suggests Dabiri, the current findings might apply to not only krill, which dwell in the upper kilometer of the ocean, but also to fish, jellyfish, mammals and squid — all of which swim even deeper and have the potential to churn the entire water column.

As for the use of brine shrimp in their lab experiments, the researchers called them “a stand-in for less lab-hardy krill.”12 Recognized as one of the most common zooplankton, krill are abundant marine organisms known to make their daily migrations in giant swarms. Similar to brine shrimp, they dive hundreds of meters deep during daytime hours and return to the ocean's surface at night to feed.

Could Collective Turbulence Generated by Tiny Sea Creatures Positively Affect the Environment?

“At the heart of the investigation is the question about whether life in the ocean, as it moves about the environment, does any important ‘mixing,’” states William Dewar, Ph.D., professor of oceanography at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. “These results argue quite compellingly that they do, and strongly counter the concern most marine life is simply too small in size to matter.”13 

Furthermore, Dewar believes the Stanford work brings to light the importance of ocean mixing to the global climate cycle. He suggests the cumulative effect of mixing could be helpful in churning up nutrients to not only feed phytoplankton blooms, but also aid gas exchange with the atmosphere.

Writing for Phys.org, Amy Adams, director of science communications at Stanford University, says this marks the first time migrating zooplankton have been shown to effectively create turbulence on a scale large enough to mix the ocean's waters. “The work could alter the way ocean scientists think about global nutrient cycles like carbon, phosphate and oxygen or even ocean currents themselves,” says Adams.14 Dabiri added:15

"Ocean dynamics are directly connected to global climate through interactions with the atmosphere. The fact swimming animals could play a significant role in ocean mixing — an idea that has been almost heretical in oceanography — could therefore have consequences far beyond the immediate waters where the animals reside."

Furthermore, Dabiri believes the findings may help scientists understand how the ocean pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, leading to updates in ocean climate models. "Right now, a lot of our ocean climate models don't include the effects of animals or if they do it's as passive participants in the process," Dabiri said.16 Adams believes “the findings could change the way ocean scientists think about the role of animals in influencing their watery environment — and potentially our climate on land.”17

Why Krill Oil Is a Better Choice Than Fish Oil

While the news scientists may be able to harness the swimming power of krill and other marine creatures for mixing ocean water is exciting, I would like to turn your attention to a more personal way krill can benefit you. For many years, I have been recommending krill oil — going so far to suggest it become your go-to source of animal-based omega-3 fats.

Particularly if you are not eating safe sources of seafood like anchovies, sardines or wild Alaskan salmon on a regular basis, you will want to take an omega-3 supplement. While krill oil is often compared to fish oil, there are actually a number of differences between the two that make krill a far superior choice.

Below are six reasons why krill oil is a better choice than fish oil for omega-3 supplementation. Besides being an excellent source of the essential long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) your body needs, krill oil is a better choice than fish oil because it is:18

Bioavailable

Whereas most of the potential benefit of fish oil can be lost due to poor absorption, krill oil is more bioavailable because its omega-3s are attached to phospholipids, which carry nutrients directly to your cell membranes where they are more readily absorbed. They can also cross your blood-brain barrier to reach important brain structures.

Furthermore, phospholipids are also one of the principal compounds in high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which your body needs in healthy amounts. In contrast, fish oil omega-3s attach to triglycerides that must be broken down in your gut, where as much as 80 to 90 percent of it is eliminated in your large intestine.

Burp-free

If you’ve ever taken fish oil, you may be aware of the unpleasant side effects — such as a fishy aftertaste, burps and indigestion — known to accompany the consumption of fish oil capsules. Given their composition and the fact they come in smaller capsules, krill is burp-free.

Contaminant-free

While fish oil may be contaminated with mercury, krill has very low levels of this and other toxins mainly because it is found at the bottom of the food chain. As such, it feeds on phytoplankton, whereas most fish feed on other fish that have been accumulating mercury and other toxic compounds. Krill comes from the Antarctic, which is considered the cleanest ocean on the planet, thereby making krill the purest source of omega-3s.

Potent

In a 2011 study published in the journal Lipids,19 researchers gave subjects up to 63 percent less krill-based EPA/DHA as the fish oil group, yet both groups showed equivalent blood levels — proving krill was more potent than fish oil, meaning you may be able to take less of it to achieve the same result.

Stable

Because krill oil contains a powerful antioxidant called astaxanthin, unlike fish oil, it will not oxidize in your cabinet, or worse, in your stomach. Its antioxidant power also protects your body from free radicals. Because fish oil oxidizes easily, it promotes free radical damage.

In laboratory tests, krill oil remained undamaged after being exposed to a steady flow of oxygen for 190 hours. Compare that to fish oil, which went rancid after just one hour. This makes krill oil nearly 200 times more resistant to oxidative damage than fish oil.

Sustainable

Krill makes up the largest biomass in the world — an estimated 500 million tons20 — and less than 1 to 2 percent of ocean krill are harvested annually. The Antarctic krill population is highly regulated and monitored by several high-profile organizations to promote sustainability, ensuring it is not overfished. Learn more about krill sustainability.

Animal-Based Omega-3s Are Beneficial to Your Heart, Eyes and More

Increasing your omega-3 intake may benefit your heart. Research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings21 involving the review of 34 studies on EPA and DHA, confirmed those who consume fish and/or an omega-3 supplement (such as krill oil) may help reduce their risk of coronary heart disease. Higher-risk populations, such as those with elevated triglyceride or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, seemed to benefit even more from omega-3s than their healthier counterparts.

In terms of supporting healthy vision, astaxanthin — the powerful antioxidant found in krill oil — has emerged as the best carotenoid for eye health and the prevention of blindness. Astaxanthin provides protective benefits against a number of eye-related problems, including:

Age-related macular degeneration

Glaucoma

Cataracts

Inflammatory eye diseases such as iritis, keratitis, retinitis and scleritis

Cystoid macular edema

Retinal arterial occlusion

Diabetic retinopathy

Venous occlusion

Beyond your heart and vision, omega-3s also provide vital support to your body in terms of supporting your brain function, joints and skin, among other areas. For more strategies and tips about omega-3s, check out my Practical Guide to Omega-3 Benefits and Supplementation.

The Best Way to Track Your Omega-3 Level Is With the Omega-3 Index

Whether you eat fatty fish or take a daily krill supplement, the best way to determine your required dose of omega-3 is to measure your level using the omega-3 index. Since requirements for omega-3 vary depending on your diet and exercise habits, it’s best to do the omega-3 index blood test. Watch the video above to learn more about what it measures.

As part of a consumer-sponsored research project, GrassrootsHealth has created a cost-effective test kit to measure both your vitamin D and omega-3 index. By studying the levels of these two nutrients in the general population, researchers hope to better understand how vitamin D and omega-3 levels impact human health. The data gathered using this third-party test kit will enable scientists to analyze potential links between these two vital nutrients.

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