12 Top Difference between Phytoplankton and Zooplankton with Table

What is the difference between phytoplankton and zooplankton?

Planktons are tiny organisms that drift along the surface of fresh water. They are divided into phytoplankton and zooplankton. These two terms tend to confuse a lot of people.

The article provides a detailed insight into the difference between phytoplankton and zooplankton with comparison charts as well as examples.

Difference between Phytoplankton and Zooplankton

What Is a Phytoplankton?

Phytoplankton refers to plant-like microorganisms found on the surface of either fresh or marine water. These organisms make their own food and they happen to be the primary producers.

These organisms are microscopic in nature and they can only be observed when they grow in large quantities known as a boom.

Research shows that phytoplankton is responsible for generating half of the atmospheric oxygen. Examples are algae and diatoms.

What Is a Zooplankton?

Zooplankton refers to aquatic animal-like organisms that move along with the current of the water. They are classified into picoplankton, nanoplankton, microplankton, meroplankton, macroplankton, and mega plankton based on development.

Another form of classification is based on sizes are meroplankton and holoplankton. Holoplankton refers to permanent members such as Polychaetes, Larvaceans, Copepoda, Pteropods, Siphonophores, etc.

Temporal members belong to meroplankton and they comprise crustaceans, mollusks, Echinodermata, and some small fishes.

Comparison Chart: Phytoplankton vs Zooplankton

Basic Terms Phytoplankton Zooplankton
Meaning Plant-like creatures Animal-like creatures
Examples Diatoms and algae Tiny fishes, mollusks, crustaceans and Echinodermata
Mode of nutrition Autotrophs Heterotrophs
Habitat Live on the surface of the water Live in the darker and cooler area of the water bodies
Liberation of oxygen Release oxygen into the atmosphere Do not liberate oxygen
Movement Do not swim Swim either actively or passively
Ecological Importance The main source of food for marine animals Help in checking the level of toxicity in marine
Trophic level Primary producer Both primary consumer and secondary consumer
Metamorphosis Do not undergo metamorphosis Tend to undergo metamorphosis
Morphology Exist in brown color Exist in different colors and shape

Core Differences between Phytoplankton and Zooplankton

  1. Phytoplankton is plant-like aquatic microorganisms whereas zooplankton is aquatic animal-like organisms and the larval stages of other life forms.
  2. Examples of phytoplankton are diatoms, dinoflagellates, blue-green algae, and cyanobacteria while zooplankton is crustaceans-like krill, holoplankton, meroplankton, protozoans, and worms.
  3. The morphology of phytoplankton are brown color while zooplankton can be found in different colors
  4. Phytoplankton are found along the surface of the water while zooplankton in the darker and cooler area of water bodies
  5. The nutritional model of phytoplankton is autotrophs while that of zooplankton are heterotrophs
  6. Phytoplankton make their own food through photosynthesis while zooplankton eat phytoplankton
  7. Phytoplankton releases oxygen whereas zooplankton consumes oxygen
  8. Phytoplankton are primary producers in the aquatic food chain whereas zooplankton are primary and secondary consumers in the aquatic food chain
  9. Phytoplankton do not undergo metamorphosis whereas zooplankton undergo metamorphosis
  10. Zooplankton can swim to escape predators whereas phytoplankton cannot swim
  11. Examples of phytoplankton creatures are Algae and Diatoms while those of zooplankton are Crustaceans and Small fishes

Comparison Video


The core difference between phytoplankton and zooplankton is that phytoplankton is tiny aquatic plant-like creatures whereas zooplankton is tiny aquatic animal-like creatures.

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