Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Algae And The Microscopic World

One of the first signs of spring in the marsh is commonly referred to as pond scum.  With this naming, the fuzzy green stuff in the water is generally dismissed as yucky, stinky, and not worthy of further consideration.  But I took the path not so well travelled.  Years ago I got my first microscope and was hooked by the microscopic world.  I would spend hours looking at pond scum and imagining how it was to live in the science fiction world of aquatic plants and animals.  Later, I was introduced to a book, ‘Algae In Water Supplies: An Illustrated Manual On The Identification, Significance, And Control Of Algae In Water Supplies‘ which expanded the possibilities for me with a series of iconic illustrations that I have included in this post.

The artistic merit of microscopic algae is not to be denied.  They have rainbows of colors and shapes that stimulate the imagination.  Some algae (diatoms) build glass houses that look like transparent space ships and truly are fully provisioned boats that passively course through the waters of the world, feeding a multitude of animals that live in aquatic spaces.   

When studied in a scientific manner, algae unfold many secrets about history, habitats, plant biology, and food.  You can reconstruct the history of a wetland by analyzing the taxonomic structure of algal remains in cores of basin sediment beneath the water surface.  As conditions change in the marsh, pond, or lake, different algal species colonize the area and leave their remains after death in a chronological order of depth.  Reading the sediment core is like reading and writing a book and constructing a map of physical, chemical, and biological changes in the ecosystem.

Microscopic algae are important in so many ways.  They absorb CO2, pollutants, and plant nutrients to act as purifiers of water.  They supply O2 and food for animals and fungi.  They produce oil that can be harvested and used for fuel to run machines and heat homes and businesses.  Diatomaceous earth (remains of diatoms) is used as a medium in filters to produce clean water.  Microscopic algae can create nuisance for humans and animals by adding foul taste to water and plugging water filters.  Some species of blue-green algae are poisonous and act as neurotoxins when ingested.

So the next time you see pond scum, take another look and think about how these tiny organisms are part of your world.  With the unaided eye, we can only see a small portion of the world size spectrum.  The microscope and libraries expand this portion.  There are so many things going on without our conscious knowledge.   Expanding our knowledge helps to stimulate imagination and playful participation in the dance of life beginning to move with the first signs of spring.

Posted by michael

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