Check out these spectacularly beautiful images of the ocean’s smallest, weirdest creatures

Planet Magazine has published a stunning gallery of some recently discovered sea-based microorganisms. These images of the wondrously bizarre phytoplankton and zooplankton were taken by researchers aboard the Tara Oceans, a ship that only recently returned from its two-and-half-year journey.

The top image of Polychaeta a was photographed by Christian Rouviere.

Check out these spectacularly beautiful images of the ocean’s smallest, weirdest creaturesS

The Tara Oceans expedition was an attempt to discover and chronicle these tiny organisms before many of them disappear forever. They are among the most essential life forms on the planet, and we know surprisingly little about them. And disturbingly, they are disappearing at a rate of 1% a year on account of global warming. This urgency compelled the crew of Tara Oceans to go on a multi-year journey around the globe.

Jordan Sayle of Planet Magazine reports:

Warmer and acidified waters linked to human activities are disrupting subsurface ecosystems and turning the mission to study oceanic microorganisms into a race against time. A 2010 report in the journal Nature found that planktonic populations have declined by 40 percent since 1950. Appraising their health and numbers has significance beyond mere curiosity. As a food source, pelagic plankton constitute the foundation of the maritime food web. And as emitters of oxygen and as carbon sinks, they play a vital role in regulating the content and temperature of our atmosphere.

Check out these spectacularly beautiful images of the ocean’s smallest, weirdest creaturesS It was with this race against the clock in mind that the Tara Oceans, a 118-foot aluminum schooner, set sail from Lorient, France in September 2009 to conduct the first attempt at producing a global study of marine plankton. For nearly three years, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme, the crew onboard has journeyed across 70,000 miles, taking samples from the waters adjacent to six continents in order to examine the structures of microorganisms and their ecosystems.

And a Sayle notes, there's more planned for the future:

Check out these spectacularly beautiful images of the ocean’s smallest, weirdest creaturesS The ten-year process to analyze the samples is now in its beginning stages, while future missions by Tara Expeditions are being planned. Next year, the crew will visit the Arctic to create a new inventory of biodiversity there, and in 2014 they'll head to the Pacific Ocean to study coral reefs, including visits to South Asia, which the recent voyage failed to reach. For now, we can simply marvel at the stunning fruits of Tara's labor so far with previously unimaginable visions of plankton, protozoa, and crustaceans from deep in the world's oceans.

Be sure to check out the entire gallery over at Planet Magazine — there's a lot more.

Via Grist. All images courtesy Tara Oceans/Planet Magazine.