Groups of Protists


The Rhizaria supergroup includes many of the amoebas with thin threadlike, needle-like or root-like pseudopodia (Figure), rather than the broader lobed pseudopodia of the Amoebozoa. Many rhizarians make elaborate and beautiful tests—armor-like coverings for the body of the cell—composed of calcium carbonate, silicon, or strontium salts. Rhizarians have important roles in both carbon and nitrogen cycles. When rhizarians die, and their tests sink into deep water, the carbonates are out of reach of most decomposers, locking carbon dioxide away from the atmosphere. In general, this process by which carbon is transported deep into the ocean is described as the biological carbon pump, because carbon is “pumped” to the ocean depths where it is inaccessible to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The biological carbon pump is a crucial component of the carbon cycle that maintains lower atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Foraminiferans are unusual in that they are the only eukaryotes known to participate in the nitrogen cycle by denitrification, an activity usually served only by prokaryotes.

The micrograph shows a semi-round cell with long, hair-like projections extending from it.
Rhizaria. Ammonia tepida, a Rhizaria species viewed here using phase contrast light microscopy, exhibits many threadlike pseudopodia. It also has a chambered calcium carbonate shell or test. (credit: modification of work by Scott Fay, UC Berkeley; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)


Foraminiferans, or forams, are unicellular heterotrophic protists, ranging from approximately 20 micrometers to several centimeters in length, and occasionally resembling tiny snails (Figure). As a group, the forams exhibit porous shells, called tests that are built from various organic materials and typically hardened with calcium carbonate. The tests may house photosynthetic algae, which the forams can harvest for nutrition. Foram pseudopodia extend through the pores and allow the forams to move, feed, and gather additional building materials. Typically, forams are associated with sand or other particles in marine or freshwater habitats. Foraminiferans are also useful as indicators of pollution and changes in global weather patterns.

The photo shows small, white shells that look like clamshells, and shell fragments. Each cell is about 0.25 mm across.
Foraminiferan Tests. These shells from foraminifera sank to the sea floor. (credit: Deep East 2001, NOAA/OER)


A second subtype of Rhizaria, the radiolarians, exhibit intricate exteriors of glassy silica with radial or bilateral symmetry (Figure). Needle-like pseudopods supported by microtubules radiate outward from the cell bodies of these protists and function to catch food particles. The shells of dead radiolarians sink to the ocean floor, where they may accumulate in 100 meter-thick depths. Preserved, sedimented radiolarians are very common in the fossil record.

The micrograph shows a tear drop-shaped white structure reminiscent of a shell. The structure is hollow and perfused with circular holes.
Radiolarian shell. This fossilized radiolarian shell was imaged using a scanning electron microscope. (credit: modification of work by Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)


The Cercozoa are both morphologically and metabolically diverse, and include both naked and shelled forms. The Chlorarachniophytes (Figure) are photosynthetic, having acquired chloroplasts by secondary endosymbiosis. The chloroplast contains a remnant of the chlorophyte endosymbiont nucleus, sandwiched between the two sets of chloroplast membranes. Vampyrellids or "vampire amoebae," as their name suggests, obtain their nutrients by thrusting a pseudopod into the interior of other cells and sucking out their contents.

Image is a Chlorarachniophyte. It appears as a series of green cells with what appear to be fibers surrounding and connecting them.
A Chlorarachniophyte. This rhizarian is mixotrophic, and can obtain nutrients both by photosynthesis and by trapping various microorganisms with its network of pseudopodia. (credit: By ja:User:NEON / commons:User:NEON_ja (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
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