For their research, “Viscous Constraints on Zooplankton Approach and Interaction,” associate professors Henry Fu and Rob Stoll, received an NSF award of $338,000.

Explaining their research Fu said, “Organisms that swim in water need to approach suspended particles for a variety of life processes, such as feeding, mating, fertilization, and finding favorable habitats. This proposed work focuses on plankton, which despite their small size play an outsize role in ocean ecology due to their numerical abundance. For example, phytoplankton provide the base of the food web by converting sunlight into organic matter, which is transferred further up to the food chain, primarily by zooplankton which eat the phytoplankton.”

Hydrodynamics at the micro- to millimeter scales of zooplankton is dominated by viscosity, and severely constrains their ability to approach other particles. Attempts to approach smaller food particles are made difficult by viscous flows that tend to push the food particle away. However, zooplankton also approach similar size particles during mating, as well as larger particles during egg fertilization or when exploring new habitats.

The goal of the proposed work is to understand what general constraints viscous hydrodynamics place on the approach of plankton to suspended particles and how those constraints determine biological form and function. The results will inform our understanding of how plankton eat, reproduce, and spread to new habitats, which in turn affects their efficiencies in the global food web and nutrient uptake and recycling, ultimately affecting ecological/planetary energy and nutrient (including carbon) flows. The project will also enhance engineering education through graduate and undergraduate research training, and an outreach program which will communicate our research results to local high school students.

Dr. Henry Fu directs the Fluids and Biomechanics Laboratory

Dr. Rob Stoll directs the Computational & Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory