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Partner Encyclopedia of Life

  • Travel to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts where scientists study the microscopic world of the pteropod, more commonly know as the sea butterfly. Nicknamed for the way it swims through the water, the sea butterfly propels itself with fins that protrude from its transparent shell and flap like a butterfly’s wings. Though no larger than a grain of sand, these otherworldly creatures are a staple in the diet of marine animals like the sea angel (seen above). But the world of the sea butterfly–and the predators that call it dinner–is in danger from the changing chemistry of our warming oceans. Increasing ocean acidification dissolves the pteropod’s shell, often killing the animal... and everything that eats it. Join Ari Daniel Shapiro as he delves into the delicate ecosystem of the sea butterfly.

    1. Why is the sea butterfly’s shell in danger?

      Increasing ocean acidification is dissolving the shells of the sea butterfly. Without a shell sea butterflies—and animals like fish and seabirds that rely on it for food—struggle to survive.

    2. Why are scientists concerned with the fate of an organism that is invisible to the naked eye?

      The tiny pteropod might not seem connected to global climate change. But the sea butterfly’s disappearing shell is a result of increasing ocean acidification that is caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide—a potent greenhouse gas—in the earth's atmosphere.

    3. Why does Cornelia Kavanagh create statues of the sea butterfly?

      Kavanagh loves recreating the beauty of the sea butterfly, but her exhibit is also meant to shed light on the troubled existence of the invisible creature. If people do not know about about pteropods, Kavanagh worries, "how many people are gonna care?"

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    Arctic Noun

    region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Arctic
    biologist Noun

    scientist who studies living organisms.

    carbon dioxide Noun

    greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

    food web Noun

    all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food web
    luminesce Verb

    to emit light.

    microorganism Noun

    very tiny living thing.

    microscopic Adjective

    very small.

    ocean acidification Noun

    decrease in the ocean's pH levels, caused primarily by increased carbon dioxide. Ocean acidification threatens corals and shellfish.

    terrestrial Adjective

    having to do with the Earth or dry land.

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