Ocean Plants: Types & Facts

Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

We often think of plants as terrestrial organisms that grow in soil and have leaves and flowers. However, plants can also live in ocean waters. Which are you familiar with? Read on to learn more about ocean plants.

The Flora of the Ocean

What comes to your mind when you think of ocean life? Perhaps you imagine marine mammals such as whales and dolphins or large schools of colorful fish. The different types of animal life in the ocean are too plentiful to count. However, life in the ocean is not just limited to animals. Plant life also abounds in our ocean waters, and makes up a very important part of the marine ecosystem. What types of plants thrive in the ocean? Join us as we discover facts about ocean plants.

What Defines a Plant?

When you think of a plant, you most likely imagine a structure with a stem and leaves and perhaps flowers. Usually they are rooted in soil, and need sunlight to live. This is a defining characteristic of plants: the unique ability to make their own food through the process of photosynthesis. Although there are fewer ocean plants than terrestrial ones, some plants do make their home in the salty brine of the ocean. Let's take a closer look.

Abundant Microscopic Plant Life

One major form of plant life in the ocean is as important as it is tiny. Not your typical leafy plant, phytoplankton encompasses a diverse and abundant group of organisms that are too small to see. Drifting through ocean waters, many of them are microscopic marine plants. These types of phytoplankton undergo photosynthesis and produce so much oxygen for the earth that we would be in tough shape without them! Many look quite unique under a microscope as evidenced by diatoms, encased in glassy shells.

The unique structure of diatoms, a type of phytoplankton
Diatoms, a type of phytoplankton

Phytoplankton is at the base of the marine food chain, which means that they feed an enormous number of other animals in the ocean. From small fish to massive whales, so many animals feed on phytoplankton that most ocean life could not survive without them.

Marine Grasses

In the ocean, another major form of plant life creates a grassy ocean floor. Seagrass is found in shallow and relatively warm waters, creating the appearance of underwater grasslands. With long, narrow blades, seagrass is a true plant and not a form of seaweed. It needs sunlight in order to undergo photosynthesis, hence its need for shallow waters. Seagrasses have true roots and leaves, and they flower despite living completely underwater for their entire lives.

An example of seagrass

With over seventy different species, seagrasses provide a very important habitat and food source for many different types of animals. In addition, seagrasses create a stable ecosystem by reducing erosion of coastlines and trapping sediment and also produce very large amounts of oxygen through photosynthesis.

Marine marsh grasses are found in salt marshes along coastlines. Unlike seagrass, marsh grasses are rooted in marine water but grow up out of the water. They also serve an important purpose as an excellent habitat for birds and other animals.

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