Temporal range: Early Cretaceous – Recent
H. Milne-Edwards, 1840
Copepods (//; meaning "oar-feet") are a group of small crustaceans found in the sea and nearly every freshwater habitat. Some species are planktonic (drifting in sea waters), some are benthic (living on the ocean floor), and some continental species may live in limno-terrestrial habitats and other wet terrestrial places, such as swamps, under leaf fall in wet forests, bogs, springs, ephemeral ponds and puddles, damp moss, or water-filled recesses (phytotelmata) of plants such as bromeliads and pitcher plants. Many live underground in marine and freshwater caves, sinkholes, or stream beds. Copepods are sometimes used as bioindicators.
Classification and diversity
Copepods are typically 1 to 2 millimetres (0.04 to 0.08 in) long, with a teardrop-shaped body and large antennae. Although like other crustaceans they have an armoured exoskeleton, they are so small that in most species this thin armour, and the entire body, is almost totally transparent. Some polar copepods reach 1 centimetre (0.39 in). Most copepods have a single median compound eye, usually bright red and in the centre of the transparent head; subterranean species may be eyeless. Like other crustaceans, copepods possess two pairs of antennae; the first pair are often long and conspicuous.
Copepods typically have a short, cylindrical body, with a rounded or beaked head. The head is fused with the first one or two thoracic segments, while the remainder of the thorax has three to five segments, each with limbs. The first pair of thoracic appendages are modified to form maxillipeds, which assist in feeding. The abdomen is typically narrower than the thorax, and contains five segments without any appendages, except for some tail-like "rami" at the tip.
Because of their small size, copepods have no need of any heart or circulatory system (the members of the order Calanoida have a heart but no blood vessels), and most also lack gills. Instead they absorb oxygen directly into their bodies. Their excretory system consists of maxillary glands.
Copepods have a variety of sensory capabilities. The most noteworthy are bristle-like setae that act as mechanoreceptors responding to flow that causes bending. An array of such sensors allows detection of patterns of water flow around the body caused by approaching prey or predator, and the copepod can distinguish between the two. The sensors are highly specialized for sensitivity and the nerves are even myelinated for fast conduction.
The second pair of cephalic appendages in free-living copepods are usually the main time-averaged source of propulsion, beating like oars to pull the animal through the water. However, different groups have different modes of feeding and locomotion, ranging from almost unmotile for several minutes (e.g. some harpacticoid copepods) to intermittent motion (e.g., some cyclopoid copepods) and continuous displacements with some escape reactions (e.g. most calanoid copepods.)
Many of the smaller copepods feed directly on phytoplankton, catching cells singly. Some of the larger species are predators of their smaller relatives. Many benthic copepods eat organic detritus or the bacteria that grow in it, and their mouth parts are adapted for scraping and biting. Herbivorous copepods, particularly those in rich cold seas, store up energy from their food as oil droplets while they feed in the spring and summer plankton blooms. These droplets may take up over half of the volume of the body in polar species.
Some copepods have extremely fast escape responses when a predator is sensed and can jump with high speed over a few millimetres. Many species have neurons surrounded by myelin (for increased conduction speed), which is very rare among invertebrates (other examples are some annelids and malacostracan crustaceans like palaemonid shrimp and penaeids). Even rarer, the myelin is highly organized, resembling the well-organized wrapping found in vertebrates (Gnathostomata).
Finding a mate in the three-dimensional space of open water is challenging. Some copepod females solve the problem by emitting pheromones, which leave a trail in the water that the male can follow.
Diversity in copepod diets is important, as it provides many pathways by which they can obtain their required nutrients. Diets that are nutritionally complete enrich the chances of success amongst individual copepods or the entire copepod population. Copepods are sensitive to metals such as silver, zinc, copper and nickel. Adding such metals to the diet of copepods leads to a reduction in their feeding and reproduction rates. Out of such metals, copepods are the most sensitive to silver. This is likely to be due to the fact that silver is not considered an essential nutrient to copepods or other marine organisms. Copepods generally tend to feed on a mixed algal diet in their natural habitat. The survival and success of the copepod population over the years may be partially due to their ability to select prey, avoiding contaminated food.
During mating, the male copepod grips the female with his first pair of antennae, which is sometimes modified for this purpose. The male then produces an adhesive package of sperm and transfers it to the female's genital opening with his thoracic limbs. Eggs are sometimes laid directly into the water, but many species enclose them within a sac attached to the female's body until they hatch. In some pond-dwelling species, the eggs have a tough shell and can lie dormant for extended periods if the pond dries up.
Eggs hatch into nauplius larvae, which consist of a head with a small tail, but no thorax or true abdomen. The nauplius moults five or six times, before emerging as a "copepodid larva". This stage resembles the adult, but has a simple, unsegmented abdomen and only three pairs of thoracic limbs. After a further five moults, the copepod takes on the adult form. The entire process from hatching to adulthood can take anything from a week to a year, depending on the species.
Planktonic copepods are important to global ecology and the carbon cycle. They are usually the dominant members of the zooplankton, and are major food organisms for small fish such as the dragonet, Banded killifish, whales, seabirds and other crustaceans such as krill in the ocean and in fresh water. Some scientists say they form the largest animal biomass on earth. Copepods compete for this title with Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba). C. glacialis inhabit the edge of the Arctic icepack, where they alone comprise up to 80% of zooplankton biomass. They bloom as the ice recedes each spring. The ongoing large reductions in the annual minimum of recent years may force them to compete in the open ocean with the much-less nourishing C. finmarchicus, which is spreading from the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea into the Barents Sea.
Because of their smaller size and relatively faster growth rates, however, and because they are more evenly distributed throughout more of the world's oceans, copepods almost certainly contribute far more to the secondary productivity of the world's oceans, and to the global ocean carbon sink than krill, and perhaps more than all other groups of organisms together. The surface layers of the oceans are currently believed to be the world's largest carbon sink, absorbing about 2 billion tons of carbon a year, the equivalent to perhaps a third of human carbon emissions, thus reducing their impact. Many planktonic copepods feed near the surface at night, then sink (by changing oils into more dense fats) into deeper water during the day to avoid visual predators. Their moulted exoskeletons, faecal pellets and respiration at depth all bring carbon to the deep sea.
About half of the estimated 13,000 described species of copepods are parasitic and have strongly modified bodies. They attach themselves to fish, sharks, marine mammals, and many kinds of invertebrates such as molluscs, tunicates, or corals. They live as endo- or ectoparasites on fish or invertebrates in fresh water as well as in marine environments.
One of the natural predators of copepods is the blue-headed wrasse.
Copepods in marine aquaria
Live copepods are used in the saltwater aquarium hobby as a food source and are generally considered beneficial in most reef tanks. They are scavengers and also may feed on algae, including coralline algae.
Live copepods are popular among hobbyists who are attempting to keep particularly difficult species such as the mandarin dragonet or scooter blenny. They are also popular to hobbyists who want to breed marine species in captivity. In a saltwater aquarium, copepods are typically stocked in the refugium.
Copepods are sometimes found in the public mains water supply, especially systems where the water is not filtered, such as New York City, Boston, Massachusetts, and San Francisco. This is not usually a problem in treated water supplies. In some tropical countries, such as Peru and Bangladesh, a correlation has been found between copepods presence and cholera in untreated water, because the cholera bacteria attach to the surfaces of planktonic animals. The larvae of the guinea worm must develop within a copepod's digestive tract before being transmitted to humans. The risk of infection with these diseases can be reduced by filtering out the copepods (and other matter), for example with a cloth filter.
The copepods can be added to water-storage containers where the mosquitoes breed. Copepods, primarily of the genera Mesocyclops and Macrocyclops (such as Macrocyclops albidus), can survive for periods of months in the containers, if the containers are not completely drained by their users. They will attack, kill, and eat the younger 1st and 2nd instar larvae of the mosquitoes. This biological control method is complemented by community trash removal and recycling to eliminate other possible mosquito-breeding sites. Because the water in these containers is drawn from uncontaminated sources such as rainfall, there is little risk of contamination by cholera bacteria, and in fact no cases of cholera have been linked to copepods introduced into water-storage containers. Trials using copepods to control container-breeding mosquitoes are underway in several other countries, including Thailand and the southern United States.
The matter of copepods in the water supply, however, has raised a problem for Jewish people who observe Kashrut in that copepods, being crustaceans, are not kosher, and are not small enough to be ignored as non-food microscopic organisms (since some specimens can be seen with the naked eye). The discovery of copepods in the New York water supply in the summer of 2004 in particular caused significant debate in rabbinical circles and caused many observant Jews to buy filters for their water.
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- "Biodiversity: Pity the copepod". The Economist. June 16, 2012. pp. 8–9. Retrieved 2012-06-19.
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- H. L. Suh, J. D. Shim and S. D. Choi (1992). "Four Species of Copepoda (Poecilostomatoida) Parasitic on Marine Fishes of Korea". Bulletin of the Korean Fisheries Society 25 (4): 291–300. (in Korean with English abstract)
- See photograph at "Blobfish / Psychrolutes microporos" (PDF). Census of Marine Life / NIWA. Retrieved December 9, 2007. Photograph taken by Kerryn Parkinson and Robin McPhee in June 2003.
- Drink Up NYC: Meet The Tiny Crustaceans (Not Kosher) In Your Tap Water. Time, Sept. 2010, Allie Townsend.
- Anthony DePalma (July 20, 2006). "New York's water supply may need filtering". New York Times. Retrieved October 12, 2010.
- Vu Sinh Nam, Nguyen Thi Yen, Tran Vu Pong, Truong Uyen Ninh, Le Quyen Mai, Le Viet, Lo, Le Trung Nghia, Ahmet Bektas, Alistair Briscombe, John G. Aaskov, Peter A. Ryan & Brian H. Kay (1 January 2005). "Elimination of dengue by community programs using Mesocyclops (Copepoda) against Aedes aegypti in central Vietnam". American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 72 (1): 67–73. PMID 15728869.
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- "OU Fact Sheet on NYC Water". Orthodox Union Kosher Certification. New York City: Orthodox Union. August 13, 2004. Retrieved May 1, 2013.
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