Watch laser-guided Sea-Monkeys stir up a watery vortex

"Coaxing Sea-Monkeys to swim when and where you want them to is even more difficult than it sounds," says Caltech scientist studying the critters' impact on ocean currents.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

Silver spheres swirl around a vortex created by Sea-Monkeys induced to swim upward with a laser. M. M. Wilhelmus and J. O. Dabiri/Caltech

Sea-Monkeys, the brand name given to a species of brine shrimp, have given kids hours of entertainment over the years. Just add a little water to powder and -- shazam! -- a whole colony springs to life from the little critters' natural state of suspended animation.

Now, the shrimp are proving to be a lot more than entertaining to two researchers at Caltech, who believe the critters "may play a significant role in stirring up nutrients, heat and salt in the sea -- major components of the ocean system," according to a report about the research.

Based on their observations, the scientists believe the tiny shrimp and other zooplankton could be responsible for adding up to a trillion watts of power to our seas per year to drive the circulation of currents -- as opposed to the wind and tides, which only contribute a combined 2 trillion watts.

John Dabiri, professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at Caltech, along with mechanical engineering graduate student Monica Wilhelmus, filled a glass container with water and tiny silver-coated glass spheres. They then dumped in a bunch of Sea-Monkeys and lit the water with a blue laser that induced the shrimps' natural proclivity to rise upward, which they do in the wild at night to feed on bioluminescent algae in the upper levels of the oceans.

The result is the impressive vortex you see in the video below, which is created by all the shrimp swarming around the beam of light. To make the video, the scientists lit the water with a second laser -- a red one -- that the Sea-Monkeys couldn't see, but that let the swirling glass spheres show up during a series of high-speed photos. So what you see in the video are the silvery balls, not the shrimp.

"Using this new experimental setup will enable future studies to better untangle the complex relationships between swimming organisms and ocean currents," the report says.

"Coaxing Sea-Monkeys to swim when and where you want them to is even more difficult than it sounds," Dabiri said. "But Monica was undeterred over the course of this project and found a creative solution to a very challenging problem."

The Sea-Monkey research was just published in the journal Physics of Fluidics.