LOKI gives a helping hand to ocean scientists

Studying the sea’s tiniest inhabitants is set to get a lot easier thanks to a new device developed by German scientists.

LOKI (Lightframe Onsight Key species Investigation) is an optical device capable of recognising and counting organisms as small as 0.2 millimetres across. It was developed by scientists at the
Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and the firm iSiTEC, with the help of European funds.

The young of most fish species rely on tiny creatures called zooplankton for their food. These zooplankton, which range in size from 0.2 to 5 millimetres, feed in turn on microscopic algae. A
healthy, diverse plankton population is therefore a key part of the marine food chain and vital to the health of fish stocks.

However, studying plankton and the relationship between plankton levels and environmental factors is not easy. Traditionally, plankton is fished from the sea using special plankton nets. The
samples are then analysed in the laboratory, an extremely time consuming process.

Thanks to LOKI, scientists will be able to study the plankton while it is still in the sea. The device is equipped with a fast, high resolution digital camera which enables it to continually
record the biodiversity of the zooplankton in the sea. At the same time, it collects data on the salinity, temperature and algal concentration of the surrounding water. A specially designed
software programme supports the classification of the species, as well as the management of the data.

LOKI can be dragged through the water behind a ship or adapted to study samples in the laboratory. Early trials in a Swedish fjord and on an arctic expedition have proven successful.

‘With this device it is possible for the first time to study the distribution of zooplankton in direct relation to environmental parameters,’ said Dr Hans-Jürgen Hirche, project leader at
the Alfred Wegener Institute.

The project partners now plan to market their device to research institutions and authorities.

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