Loving the low flows …

It is a long time since we have had a heatwave in the UK that has lasted as long as the present one.  The last that compares was in 1995, when the A1 near my house was busy with tankers ferrying water from Kielder Water in Northumberland to the drought-afflicted areas of Yorkshire.   Three weeks in and gardeners are staring anxiously at the parched soil and quietly praying for rain whilst, at the same time, trying to make the most of the rare luxury of warm weather.   Rivers, too, are showing the effects of the weather.  In some parts of the country, rivers are drying out and fish stocks are threatened.   That is not the case here in the north-east, but the River Wear is showing some signs.

The medieval Prebends Bridge is one of the most picturesque sights in Durham but, at the moment, the water underneath the bridge – and, indeed, throughout Durham – is bright green with flocs of algae.   Closer inspection showed this to be fronds of Ulva flexuosa: the cells are arranged to form a hollow tube, like a sausage skin, which traps the oxygen released by photosynthesis to give the alga an integral buoyancy aid.  You can see how this clearly in the image below. The common name for this alga is “gutweed”, which offers us another metaphor for the appearance of these semi-inflated sacs of cells.   This broad thallus is loosely attached to the river bed (see lower picture below) but is easily dislodged, after which the thalli drift downstream until they become entangled in other water plants or submerged branches.  In the current state, Durham’s rowers are grumbling that it is becoming entangled with their oars

We often see a little Ulva flexuosa in the Wear during the summer, but rarely as much as this.  It is a species that thrives under still, warm conditions and which also benefits from the weirs which regulate the flow of the river in Durham.   It is an alga that we tend to associate with nutrient-rich conditions, but this might be because the type of slow-flowing lowland rivers where it can become common are more likely to be nutrient rich than faster-flowing upland rivers where it is rarely found.   The current weather, in other words, creates the “perfect storm” for Ulva flexuosa.   Ironically, a storm – perfect or otherwise – will probably alter the flow regime in the Wear enough to flush it all downstream.  Another curiosity is that, despite being favoured by low flows and the near-standing water behind the weirs in Durham, Ulva flexuosa seems to be more likely to form mass growths in rivers rather than in lakes or ponds.

Ulva flexuosa in the River Wear, July 2018: the upper picture shows free-floating thalli, inflated by oxygen released by photosynthesis; the lower photograph shows thalli still attached to the river bed.

In my experience, the genus Ulva tends to be absent from nutrient-poor conditions which is subtly different to saying that it thrives when nutrients are abundant.  There are other factors – warm, stable conditions in particular that determine the success of the genus in any particular place.  The Wear has seen a significant decrease in nutrients in recent years yet here we are, in 2018, with a river full of Ulva.   I could say that, despite this reduction in nutrients, the Wear is still, relatively speaking, nutrient-rich, but the coincidence with an altered flow regime, a prolonged spell of warm weather and low flow conditions seems too great to ignore.   Ulva flexuosa is, in other words, a fine example of an alga where we need to think of a multifactorial “habitat template” rather than just in terms of single stressors.   We also need to think in terms of probabilities of mass proliferations increasing or decreasing as habitat factors vary, rather than a simple likelihood of finding Ulva at any particular location.

That means we need to look at climate change forecasts and, if there is a likelihood of more long, warm, dry summers, then we should expect more frequent blooms of Ulva in our rivers.  We may tinker with nutrient concentrations and even try to restore more natural flows (though Durham’s rowers will have a view if that was tried here!) but, ultimately, Ulva flexuosa is a species that enjoys a heatwave as much as any other resident of these islands.

A high magnification (x 400) view of the thallus of Ulva flexuosa from the River Wear.   Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).


Rybak, A.S. & Gąbka, M. (2017).  The influence of abiotic factors on the bloom-forming alga Ulva flexuosa (Ulvaceae, Chlorophyta): possibilities for the control of the green tides in freshwater ecosystems.  Journal of Applied Phycology https://doi.org/10.1007/s10811-017-1301-5


Hilda Canter-Lund competition winners 2018

The winner of the 2018 Hilda Canter-Lund competition for algal photography is Rafael Martín-Ledo for “Drifting diatoms”, his phase contrast image of a fragment of a colony of the diatom Licmophora, seen in a sample collected from the Bay of Santander, northern Spain, in March 2018.   There are over twenty cells attached to this branched stem, each just over a 10th of a millimetre in length.   The frond itself was probably originally attached to a seaweed in the littoral zone (see “epiphytes with epiphytes …”) but Rafael found it drifting in open water whilst using a plankton net.

Rafael trained at the University of Extremadura in Spain and started his research career with Biodiversity and Ecology of Marine Invertebrates group at the University of Seville. His primary focus during this period was the taxonomy, symbiosis and biogeography of the ophiuroids (echinoderms, including brittle stars) of Antarctic waters. After that he worked with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, examining thousands of specimens from several expeditions.

Rafael Martín-Ledo: 2018 Hilda Canter-Lund competition winner.

He currently lives in Santander, working as an independent researcher with a particular interest in marine plankton. A personal project to document the larvae of planktonic invertebrates has led to the production of hundreds of images shared through a personal website, a YouTube channel (his videos of marine organisms are also of a very high quality) and a Twitter account (@rmartinledo). The primary motivation is taxonomic but a by-product of this is to make people aware of the great morphological beauty of lesser-known marine organisms.   Some other examples of his work are reproduced below.


More examples of Rafael’s photomicroscopy skills:
a. Larva, nectochaete stage, of Glycera alba (polychaete). DIC microscopy, 200x magnification;
b. Pilidium larva, gyrans type, of nemertean worm. DIC microscopy, 200x magnification;
c. Ascidian embryo (tunicate). DIC microscopy, 400x magnification; and,
d. Cymbasoma thompsonii, female with eggs (copepod). Polarization microscopy, 40x magnification.

More examples of Rafael’s photomicroscopy skills:
e. Tripos candelabrus (dinoflagellate). DIC microscopy, 200x magnification; and,
f. Zoothamnium pelagicum (colonial ciliate). Phase Contrast microscopy, 200x magnification.

The second prize this year, awarded to the photographer of an image in a contrasting style, goes to John Huisman, an old friend of the competition who has been on the shortlist several times, winning in 2014.  John is based in Perth, Western Australia and this photograph was taken during a trip to Ashmore Reef off the northern coast of Western Australia.   His motivation is to document the marine flora of this remote region, and the image shows a new species from the red algal genus Ganonema.  Ganonema is a genus of calcified, often mucilaginous red algae, the calcification occurring as granules in the cortex and not forming a firm skeleton. At Ashmore the new species was growing in coarse coral rubble at 12 metres depth. The photograph was taken while SCUBA diving, with a Nikon Coolpix P7100 in a housing with twin Inon strobes providing fill flash.

A new Ganonema: John Huisman’s prize-winning entry for the 2018 Hilda Canter-Lund competition.

You can see these and all other winners and shortlisted images since the competition started in 2009 at the Hilda Canter-Lund pages of the British Phycological Society’s website.

John Huisman: 2014 winner and 2018 second prize winner



A question of scale …

It has taken some time to convert the observations from my last visit to the River Wear (see “Spring comes slowly up this way …”) into a picture.  Then, if you remember, the river was balanced between its “spring” and “summer” guises, the cool, wet weather that we experienced in March seems to have held the plants and animals that I usually see at this time of year back.   The result was a patchiness that was easy to see with the naked eye, but harder to visualise at the microscopic level.

First there were quite a few diatoms, Achnanthidium minutissimum in particular, – that suggested a thin biofilm subject to grazing by invertebrates (and I could see some chironomid larvae moving amongst the biofilm as I was sampling).   However, there were also diatoms such as Ulnaria ulna and Gomphonema olivaceum that suggested a thicker biofilm.    And finally there were filaments of the green alga Stigeoclonium tenue, mostly in discrete patches.   I never see healthy filaments of Stigeoclonium tenue smothered in epiphytes, which I have always assumed to be due to the copious mucilage that surrounds the plants.  However, I wondered if, nonetheless, Stigeoclonium contributes to overall habitat patchiness for the diatoms, as they subtly alter the way that water flows across the stone, reducing drag and shear stress in a way that favours Gomphonema and Ulnaria.   This is just speculation, of course…

That brings me back to a familiar theme: the problems of understanding the structure of the microscopic world (see “The River Wear in January” and “Baffled by the benthos (1)”) and, tangentially, to a paper on organisms’ responses to climate that was quoted at a scientific meeting I attended recently.   In this, Kristen Potter and colleagues demonstrated that there was typically a 1000 to 10,000 fold difference between the scale at which the distribution of organisms is studied and the size of those organisms.   That might be enough to draw out some coarse-scale patterns in distribution of species, but organisms actually live in microclimates, which may be patchy and which can often be quite different to the prevailing macroclimate (the difference between being exposed to full sun in open grassland and in the shade of a forest being a good example).   They suggested that the ideal spatial resolution is between one and ten times the organism’s length/height.

I see no reason why the same challenge should not also apply to the pressures faced by organisms in rivers where, again, we can get a certain amount of useful information from a coarse analysis of distribution in relation to (let’s say) average nutrient concentrations in a reach, but cannot really understand the reasons behind the spatial and temporal variation that we see in our data.  This mismatch between the scale at which organisms respond and the scale at which we study them is, I suspect, an even bigger problem for those of us who study the microscopic world.

A second illustration came at the same meeting in a talk by Honor Prentice from the University of Lund in Sweden.  She was dabbling in molecular biology years before this became a fashionable pastime for ecologists and has, over her career, developed some fascinating insights into how the structure of both plant communities and populations of individuals vary over short distances.  Her work has focussed on the island of Öland in Sweden which has the largest extent of alvar (limestone pavement) in Europe.   The system of grikes (the slabs) and clints (the fissures which separate the grikes) create quite different microclimates – the cool, moist conditions in the latter can create bog-like conditions with much lower pH than the limestone clints.   These differences influence not just the composition of the community but the genetic structure of species within these communities too.  I left thinking that if she could detect such differences at a scale barely more than one order of magnitude greater than the organisms, then how much more variation am I missing, with perhaps a five order of magnitude difference between organism size and sampling scale?

Based on these two studies, we would need to sample biofilms at a scale of about 1 mm2 in order to get a meaningful understanding of habitat patchiness in stream benthic algae.  That might just be possible with Next Generation Sequencing technologies, though I am not sure how one would go about collecting environmental data at that scale needed to explain what is going on.  Meanwhile, I am left with the coarse approach to sampling that is inevitable when you are five orders of magnitude bigger than the organism that you want to collect, and my imagination.


Potter, K.A., Woods, H.A. & Pincebourde, S. (2013).  Microclimatic changes in global change biology.   Global Change Biology 19: 2932-2939.

Prentice, H.C., Lonn, M., Lefkovitch, L.P. & Runyeon, H. (1995).   Associations between allele frequencies in Festuca ovina and habitat variation in the alvar grasslands on the Baltic island of OlandJournal of Ecology 83: 391-402.