Vis-a-thon 2020

Plankton Patterns

Tricia Thibodeau

RI C-AIM Postdoctoral Fellow


Rafael Attias

Tricia Thibodeau analyzes the 50-year Narragansett Bay Plankton Time Series. Dr. Thibodeau aims to identify the underlying environmental parameters deriving plankton community dynamics in Narragansett Bay to facilitate efforts to forecast important phenomena in plankton ecology.

Tricia Thibodeau, Initial Proposal Note

Dr. Thibodeau wanted to visualize the decrease of phytoplankton abundance due to long-term seawater warming and nutrient shifts in the Bay. Since the 1950’s, the Narragansett Bay Long-Term Plankton Time Series has monitored the abundance and types of plankton inhabiting Rhode Island's most well-known body of water.

Phytoplankton, Winter Bloom Mix With Microscopy

The winter bloom began in early January 2019. Pictured planktons are Chaetoceros Debilis, Chaetoceros Diadema, Skeletonema, Odontella Aurita, Coscinodiscus, a frustule of Rhizosolenia, and several species of Thalassiosira.

Plankton IFCB and Microscopy Images

From Top Left to Clockwise

1. Non-Phytoplankton Plankton that Can't Photosynthesize Tintinnida (IFCB Image), Acartia Tonsa (IFCB Image), Mnemiopsis Leidyi (IFCB Image)

2. Cold Water Plankton Species that Common in Winter And Spring Thalassiosira Nordenskioeldii (Microscopy Image), Chaetoceros Diadema (IFCB Image), Odontella Aurita (Microscopy Image), Rhizosolenia Setigera (Microscopy Image)

3. Phytoplankton, Winter Water Species that Common in Summer and Fall Odontella Sinensis (Microscopy Image), Eucampia Zodiacus (Microscopy Image), Dinophysis Spp (Microscopy Image), Cochlodinum Ploykrikoides (Microscopy Image)

4. Other Relevant and Unique Phytoplankton Ceratium (Microscopy Image), Thalassionema Nitzschioides (Microscopy Image)

Phytoplankton Abundance Graph

These shifts in phytoplankton abundance and timing have important implications for invertebrates and fish in Narragansett Bay that depend on phytoplankton for food.

During Vis-a-thon, Tricia learned Adobe Illustrator and art+design practices that included raster to vector transformation, pattern making and framing visualizations. Tricia made three panels, each printed 34x96" on a large format printer, which were then hung from a ceiling for documentation purposes.

Process Overview

Plankton Drawing on Adobe Illustrator

Thanks to this wealth of data, Thibodeau was able to average the seasonal phytoplankton abundance across three different decades: the 70’s, 90’s, and 2010’s. Inspired by intricate wallpaper patterns, she created three 8’×3’ hanging banners.

Plankton Patterns, Final Works, 8’x3’

The first step in creating a large-scale visualization of abundance shifts was to generate vector illustrations of phytoplankton from microscopic images. These illustrations were combined with phytoplankton abundance graphs to create an immersive, graphic timeline of decline across three decades.

Plankton Patterns, Final Work, 1970's Detail

In the 1970's, highest plankton abundance (the peak) was in February, 13mg chl m³. The lowest abundance (the through) occurred in May, 8mg chl m³. The largest blooms happened during summer, 15mg chl m³.

Plankton Patterns, Final Work, 1990's Summer and Fall Detail

In the 1990's, there were very few blooms in the winter, 5mg chl m³. The lowest plankton abundance still occurred in May, 4mg chl m³. The largest bloom in the 1990's was 33% smaller than the 1970's, 9mg chl m³.

Plankton Patterns, Final Work, 2010's Detail

Today, the winter plankton bloom happens five weeks earlier than in the 1970's, 9mg chl m³. The lowest plankton abundance continues to be in the month of May, 5mg chl m³. The summer plankton blooms now takes place four weeks later than in the 1970's, 9mg chl m³.

Tools Used in the Project

Adobe Illustrator Large-format Plotter Heavyweight Matte Paper Hanging Hardware


© Plankton Patterns, 2020

This material is based upon work supported in part by the National Science Foundation under EPSCoR Cooperative Agreement #OIA-1655221.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.