Japan from the inside out

Plankton picture book

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 9, 2011

WHAT other country’s knowledge and appreciation of marine life can match that of Japan on a national scale? Sushi and sashimi have become international cuisine, they’ve made seaweed of all sorts palatable and its cultivation quite profitable, they’ve prepared the potentially poisonous fugu as a dish for gastronomes for centuries, the appreciation of carp and their breeding is an elegant pursuit, carp streamers are part of the national culture, and their expertise on the best ways to eat whale and dolphin drive some people to spittle-flinging rages.

They also know a thing or two about plankton.

Plankton can be small enough to be measured in nano-units (one-billionth of a meter) or as big as a whale. Those that breed by absorbing carbon and phosphorus are classified as flora, while those that feed on the flora plankton are classified as fauna. When some types of plankton reproduce abnormally, they can change the color of the sea water. Those are the buggers responsible for red tides, which kill fish by reducing the oxygen supply in the water.

The Yuu Microlife Museum in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi, the country’s only facility specializing in marine microorganism research, published this year an illustrated encyclopedia of plankton that has generated a surprising response for a work of this type. They intended for it be of interest both to the general public as well as the specialist, and they seem to have succeeded. It’s easy to carry around and has many color photographs of plankton for quick recognition, including those that cause the red tides. Local government employees responsible for measuring sea water purity for the early detection of red tides now consider it an indispensable reference.

The 205-page book on A5-sized paper is an updated version of a similar book for the plankton of the Seto Inland Sea, which the museum published at the end of 2008. Researchers from the Fisheries Research Agency in Yokohama helped the museum put it together to present the primary 172 species of plankton inhabiting the seas around Japan.

For the hydrospace enthusiasts, there are color microscope photographs of the plankton and charts enabling the identification of species by their characteristics, including size and the presence or absence of tentacles and legs. There’s a companion DVD showing video of the plankton floating in the sea.

How often is a scientific reference book appreciated by children, research scientists, and commercial interests? This seems to be one. The museum published 2,000 copies in January, and the first print run has already sold out. Demand is such that they printed 2,000 more. Apart from the researchers and university libraries who would normally be expected to buy the book, it’s also popular among local government employees and people who just enjoy flipping through the photos.

The Yamaguchi Prefecture Maritime Research Center has issued the book to all four of its branch offices. Their employees are rotated once every two or three years, and some whose job it is to conduct periodic seawater inspections find it difficult to distinguish the different plankton species. Some were willing to drive two hours to the center just to refer to the book.

The center has also suggested that the firms breeding fish in seawater farms use the book as a reference for identifying harmful plankton and thereby minimizing losses.

If a plankton picture book seems to be just the thing for your home library, or, with Christmas on the way, you want to give a thoughtful gift to the marine biologist in your family, call the museum at 0827-62-0160 and get ready to send them JPY 2,520.

Put it on the shelf next to the Dialogues.

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One Response to “Plankton picture book”

  1. toadold said

    I’ve wondered if some breeds of plankton could be farmed and processed for food stocks. Farming saltwater fish has difficulties?
    Current day food snobs/Nazis sometimes amuse me. I’m old enough and have lived enough time outside of major urban areas to remember when people ate not only a larger variety of domestic vegetables but also ate a lot more in the way of “organ” meats, tripe, glands, and tongues; “Sweetbreads” and “Mountain Oysters” to name a few. I’ve read and heard a couple of stories about Westerners who thought they liked Chinese food until they were introduced to what authentic Chinese food consisted of, they don’t waste any part of an animal and they multiple ways to prepare it. If you ever go into one of the older Jewish Deli’s you can find a large selection of organ meats also. Frankly the only thing that the Japanese eat that scares me is Tofu. Except for Soy sauce the stuff gives me terminal smelling gas.

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