The big pictures …

If you read this blog regularly you will, I hope, have some sense of just how varied are the algae that live in our freshwaters.   It occurred to me, however, that, in cataloguing this diversity, I don’t often step back and give you some idea of how these many forms relate to one another. I drop terms such as “diatom” and “green algae” into my posts but have not, perhaps, discussed the meaning of these terms in very much detail for some time.

One of the problems is that the meaning of these terms can vary, as knowledge unfolds.  For the early part of my career, for example, I could define “green algae” quite easily, and point to several authoritative textbooks to support my case.   Depending on who wrote the book (and when), green algae were either a separate division (“Chlorophyta”) or a class (“Chlorophyceae”).  There was some dispute about whether Chara and relatives belonged in this group or formed a separate group (“Charophyta”) but that was pretty much the end of the story and taxonomists then got down to arguing about how the many genera and species of green algae should be arranged within this broad heading.

Opinion has, however, shifted over the last couple of decades, with the green algae now split between two separate phyla within the kingdom Plantae.   One of these phyla is the Chlorophyta and the other is the Charophyta, which includes not just Chara and relatives but also some quite important Classes of green algae.    We have met representatives from many of the Classes from both of these phyla in this blog over the years, with the exception of the Prasinophytes, which is an important group of marine plankton with only a few freshwater representatives, and the Trebouxiphyceae.


The organisation of the “green algae” subkingdom (“Viridiplantae”) showing division into two Phyla, and the major Classes found in freshwaters within each Phylum.   The organisation follows Algaebase and the Tree of Life website (see also Lewis & McCourt, 2004). 

Back in the summer I described a number of green algae that I found in the River Wear.   In “Summertime blues …” I wrote about algae that belong to the Chlorophyceae whilst, later in the summer, I explained how these had been joined by a number of desmids, which belong to the Conjugatophyceae (see “Talking about the weather …”).  The plate in that post includes a cell of Pediastrum boryanumbeside some of the desmids; if I was to put together a plate of animals sharing a similar level of kinship, I might include a human and a slug – representatives of two separate phyla within the same kingdom, Animalia (see “Who do you think you are?”).  That is a remarkable amount of diversity to pack into a group of microscopic cells.

The next figure shows the organisation within the Conjugatophyceae, one of the Classes of Charophyta.  The biggest group, in terms of number of species, is the Desmidales, which have featured in quite a few posts (see “Desmid diversity …”), but this class also includes Mougeotia and Zygnema, which we met in the previous post.  Again, just to give you some idea of the scale of the differences, Mougeotia and Zygnema are as closely related as we are to chimpanzees (different genera, same family), whilst their kinship to a desmid is on a par with ours to a warthog (different families, same order).

If you think that you are rather more different to a warthog than one microscopic green alga is to another, there are two things you need to remember: the first is that humans are, relatively speaking, rather good at knowing what features set different types of mammal apart, and that the absence of two short tusks protruding from the sides of the mouth, coupled with a bipedal gate, are highly relevant factors when struggling to decide whether or not the organism in front of you is a man or a warthog.  When trying to understand microscopic organisms such as algae, there are fewer obvious characters, and some of the most useful (such as the presence of flagellae during the reproductive stages) may be present only for a short period of the life cycle.   Straightforward observation, quite simply, is not so useful when trying to determine relationships between microscopic organisms.


Organisation within the Conjugatophyceae, showing division into two Orders and Families.  After Algaebase and the Tree of Life website.

The other point to bear in mind is that algae having had far longer to evolve than mammals.   The two green algae lineages may have separated before the end of the Precambrian era, whilst the primates, the Order to which humans belong, split from other mammals only 65 million years ago.   That means that the green algae have had eight times as long to evolve subtle differences as humans have had to ensure no confusion with warthogs.   Just because these differences are not manifest in obvious features such as tusks does not mean that they are not there.

This brief overview of the green algae has had a side-benefit for me, as it has highlighted a couple of groups I have not previously written about.  One of these groups (the Prasinophytes) is uncommon in freshwaters but the other (Trebouxiphyceae) is quite common and I can even see a green patch formed by a member of this Class from my window as I write this post.   At least I know now what I should write about next …


Lewis, M.A. & McCourt, M.M. (2004). Green algae and the origin of land plants.  American Journal of Botany91: 1535-1556.

Leliaert F, Smith DR, Moreau H, Herron MD, Verbruggen H, Delwiche CF & De Clerck O (2012) Phylogeny and molecular evolution of the green algae. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 31: 1-46.


Links to posts describing representatives of the major groups of green algae.  Only the most recent posts are included but these should have links to older posts.

Group Link
Chlorophyceae Keeping the cogs turning …

Summertime blues …

Ulvophyceae Includes many important filamentous and thalloid genera from freshwaters:

Chaetophorales: Life in the colonies …

Cladophorales: Cladophora and friends

Oedogoniales: More about Oedogonium

Trentepoliales: Fake tans in the Yorkshire Dales

Ulothrichales: Spring in Ennerdale

Ulvales: Loving the low flows

Trebouxiphyceae Watch this space …
Prasinophyta Watch this space …
Charophyceaee Life in the deep zone …
Conjugatophyceae Desmidiales: Desmid diversity

Zygnemetales: Fifty shades of green

Klebsormidiaceae The River Ehen in November



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