These ocean drifters are full of the Christmas spirit


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 16 December 2019
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Who doesn’t want a festive plankton card to round out 2019?

THIS ODD LITTLE SCENE, created by independent scientist and filmmaker, Dr Richard Kirby, gives us a choir of sea angels surrounded by worm Christmas trees decorated with diatom tinsel.

A former Royal Society Research Fellow at Plymouth University in the UK, Dr Kirby is fascinated with the smallest critters of the ocean, and uses high-magnification photography to show off their beauty.

The stars of the show in the card above are the sea angels, a large group (clade: Gymnosomata) of free-swimming sea slugs that are tiny, gelatinous, and carnivorous.

Sea angel species like Cliopsis krohni (which can appear quite chunky) have evolved to hunt down and devour the equally whimsical sea butterflies. Sea butterflies are rarely seen, but lucky divers have spotted them off the coast of Australia in the Bismarck, Solomon and Coral seas up near the Cape York Peninsula and down south in the Bass Strait.

Sea angels are also known to haunt the far-northeast coast of Australia, as well as other tropical marine environments. Certain species prefer the polar seas, such as the positively ghostly Platybrachium antarcticum, found in deep Antarctic waters.

Now back to Dr Kirby’s Christmas card, where the sea angel’s halos and musical notes are made from diatoms (single-celled algae) and starfish larvae.

The Christmas trees are made from paddle worms (genus: Tomopteris), a type of bioluminescent, planktonic bristle worm that looks absolutely mesmerising:

(Image credit: uwe kils/Wikimedia)

Paddle worms are found worldwide, including off the coast of Australia, particularly down around Tasmania.

One of the Christmas trees is decorated with chain diatoms, which literally look like tinsel.

Up in the top left-hand corner of the card we’ve got a baby seastar and doliolid lanterns. Doliolids are small (1-2 mm), barrel-shaped creatures that look like aliens:

(Image credit: Otto Larink/Wikimedia)

They have a bizarre life cycle that involves generations alternating between sexual and asexual reproduction, and they completely skip the larval form.

Dr Kirby is an absolute master at making Christmas scenes from his marine life photography. Here’s another one. He makes these cards to promote his book, Ocean Drifters, which features 150 images just like the ones above.And now we’ll leave you with this extremely rare footage of sea angels performing an absolutely magical mating dance: