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Uncovering The Neuston, A Mysterious Living Island Of Sea Creatures


Imagine sailing across the open ocean when, all of a sudden, you find yourself surrounded by a living island of sea creatures - a whole ecosystem with different kinds of seagoing life all bunched up so you can no longer even see the water. The creatures at the surface are real, and they're called neuston, and scientists don't know much about them. Rebecca Helm is an assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina Asheville, and she has a new paper in the journal PLOS Biology about these life forms, and she joins us now. Welcome.

REBECCA HELM: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So marine biology usually focuses, I guess, on creatures below the surface of the water. How did you get interested in what's riding on the waves?

HELM: Well, the things that ride on the surface of the ocean are often sort of floating halfway above and halfway below. And some of them are really important to things like turtles and seabirds that hunt them and eat them. And as I was seeing more and more reports of these organisms kind of washing up on shore, I got really curious about where these habitats actually occurred in the ocean and discovered that, really, nobody knows. These animals are also being impacted by human activity so immensely. Plastic and climate change and oil spills are all impacting the ocean's surface disproportionately. So learning more about these animals is really important to understanding how we can live in harmony with our open ocean.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I saw your beautiful Twitter thread with so many gorgeous pictures. I mean, as you mentioned, these living islands are rare, but tell us about some of the creatures that live on them.

HELM: One of my favorites is called the by-the-wind sailor, Velella velella. And it's this little living sailboat that has a round sort of disc-like body sort of shaped like a leaf. And then it has a little living sail atop it. And it uses that to harness the power of the wind and sort of move through the ocean.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned plastic waste, oil spills are not helping this very rare but important ecosystem.

HELM: We really don't have any idea of what this ecosystem was like before human impacts. This is a case where the surface has already been impacted so much by human activity that we have to sort of do some forensics to reconstruct what it might have been like before things like plastics and oils and climate change started to impact their habitat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are efforts to clean up the surface helpful to them?

HELM: Efforts to clean up the ocean's surface that scoop up everything indiscriminantly will also scoop up all of these animals, so that's a big problem because it's a habitat. A better way to do it is to prevent all of that trash from winding up in that ecosystem in the first place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the meantime, though, there is a lot to learn. And you've launched a project through NASA to encourage exploration of the sea surface.

HELM: Yes, we have a brand-new project. No one person can figure out where these organisms live. It takes a whole community of people going to the beach and reporting what they see. So we've set up a new community called GO-SEA Science. So it's the Global Ocean Surface Ecosystem Alliance - GOSEA. And you can find us on - sea like S E A - or on social media. And our goal is to really get a community of people together. We want you to go to the beach. We want you to go sailing. We want you to go surfing. We want you to do it for science and be part of this movement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Rebecca Helm, assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina Asheville. You can read her new article on sea surface ecosystems in the journal PLOS Biology. Thank you very much.

HELM: Thank you so much.