Oddities in the Ocean / Science / The HumanitSEAS

The Sci-Poetry of Sleeping Dinoflagellates

Dinoflagellate; the combination of the Greek δῖνος/dinos, “whirling” and Latin flagellum, “whip, scourge.” 

Source: blueoceanemporium.blogspot.com

Dinoflagellates. Source: blueoceanemporium.blogspot.com

I recently ran across a poem, written back in 2001 by a scientist named Mary Harrington who was in the midst of some phytoplankton research. She published her poem, transcribed below, in the Journal of Biological Rhythms. Science to follow!


If the lazy dinoflagellate

should lay abed

refuse to photosynthesize


the clock will not slow

but it will grow faint



barely whispering at the end



to little effect.

The recalcitrant Gonyaulax

arms crossed


“No longer will

they call my life

(my life!)

‘just hands.’

I am sticking to the sea bed!”

I’m honestly so happy with this–the combination of poetry and science (I’m also kind of a phytoplankton nerd, which doesn’t hurt). Mary took her research–looking at the circadian rhythms and bioluminescence of the dinoflagellate Gonyaulax polyedra–and created art. Dinoflagellates are a type of phytoplankton, characterized by whip-like appendages called flagellum which they use to move around in the water. Mary’s specific dinoflagellate–the aforementioned Gonyaulax–enters a “resting stage” at a certain point in its life cycle. Gonyaulax, acting on temperature or salinity cues, forms a heavy ‘dinocyst’ and sinks swiftly to the seafloor. There it remains, dormant and sedentary, until changes in the surrounding ocean awaken it again. If left undisturbed, some resting dinoflagellate dinocysts can remain alive for over 100 years.

How amazingly improbable it all seems. Now go back and read the poem again, knowing Gonyaulax a little bit better. Science is poetry; I just can’t get over it. I love it and I want more of it.

Bioluminescence caused by a dinoflagellate bloom. Maybe Gonyaulax?

Dinoflagellate bloom bioluminescence. Maybe our friend Gonyaulax?

4 thoughts on “The Sci-Poetry of Sleeping Dinoflagellates

  1. Pingback: UNderthC’s Year in Review | UNder the C

  2. Pingback: The Chambered Nautilus Beyond High School English | UNder the C

  3. Pingback: Two Years of UNdertheC! | UNder the C

  4. Pingback: Kingdom Protista – Kingdom of life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s