One reaches a stage in an ecological career when your “niche” becomes the office not the field and you are expected to focus your hard-earned experience on data that others have collected. That means that I spend more time than I wish – even in the summer – staring at computer screens and writing reports – and far too little time engaging directly with nature. Today’s post is the result of a Saturday’s excursion around some of the more enigmatic parts of the Yorkshire Dales National Park (the enigma being, basically, that we spent most of our time in Cumbria, not Yorkshire).
The photograph above shows a steam locomotive hauling a train along the Settle to Carlisle railway as it makes its way through Mallerstang, the upper part of the Eden Valley. It is a beautiful little valley, hidden away from the main tourist drags and the sight of a steam train imparted a sense that we were somehow detached, albeit briefly, from the modern world. The river channel itself lies amidst the ribbon of woodland in the valley bottom.
The River Eden in Mallerstang (SD 778 985) with (right) a large pebble with a Cyanobacterial film.
Curious to see what kind of life thrives in such a heavily shaded stream, I hopped over a fence, pushed through some bankside vegetation, crouched down and lent out as far as possible to grab a few of the stones from the streambed. As I would have expected in a stream in such a location, the slippery film on the stone surface was thin (this is the time of year when the algae and other microbes can barely grow fast enough to keep up with the voracious appetites of the invertebrates that inhabit the crevices among the rocks) but, when I held it up to the light, there was a distinct greenish tinge that piqued my curiosity.
Under the microscope, this green tinge revealed itself to be due to numerous filaments of a thin, non-heterocystous cyanobacterium (blue-green alga), similar to that which I see in the River Ehen (see “’Signal’ or ‘noise’?”). There, Phormidium autumnale forms tough leathery mats whereas here there was no obvious arrangement of the filaments. In fact, the filaments seemed to be randomly organised within a mass of organic matter that made photography difficult and the photograph below is of one that had glided into a clear space on the coverslip. I was surprised that there were relatively few diatoms present but, amidst the clumps of cyanobacteria and organic matter, I could see cells of Gomphonema pumilum, though it was very definitely sub-dominant to the Phormidium. That was not very easy to photograph either, and my images have been built-up using Helicon Focus stacking software.
Some of the algae living on stones in the upper River Eden, August 2017: a. Phormidium cf autumnale; b. and c.: Gomphonema cf pumilum. Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 100th of a centimetre).
I have seen other streams where non-heterocystous cyanobacteria thrive during the summer months and suspect that their unpalatability relative to other algae may play a part in this. This is partially induced by the proximity of grazers – a recent study suggested that filaments of Phormidium did not need to come into contact with the grazer itself, only to detect chemicals associated with the grazer in the ambient water. This, in turn, can promote production of a tougher sheath, making the filaments less palatable. I’m always a little surprised that aquatic invertebrates find diatoms, with their silica cell walls, palatable, but I see enough midge larvae greedily hoovering-up diatoms to recognise that they know something that I do not.
My brief visit to the upper River Eden reminds me that summer can be a tough time for stream algae. Not only is this the time that the invertebrate larvae are scouring rock surfaces for algae to serve as the fuel that will catapult them into their brief adult phases, but also the trees are in full leaf, limiting the amount of energy that the algae can capture in order to power their own growth. Not surprising, then, that so many algae – diatoms and other groups alike – are more prolific in the winter, when the invertebrates are not so active and there is less shade from marginal trees (see “Not so bleak midwinter?” and “A winter wonderland in the River Ehen”). I’ll probably be sitting indoors staring at spreadsheets and writing reports this winter too, but I’ll still be looking for excuses to get out and explore nature’s hidden diversity.
Pendragon Castle, guarding the entrance to Mallerstang in the upper Eden Valley.
Fiałkowska, E. & Pajdak-Stós, A. (2014). Chemical and mechanical signals inducing Phormidium (Cyanobacteria) defence against their grazers. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 89: 659-669.