Lost in detail?

In my first post of 2017, I wrote “I fear, microscopic benthic algae may be ecology’s Sirens, sitting on submerged rocks and luring the unsuspecting into a world of taxonomic detail that is too rarely accompanied by profound ecological insight” (see “Not so bleak midwinter?”).   That was a post about Ennerdale Water and the River Ehen and I return to that same remote and beautiful part of north-west England to put some flesh onto the bones of that statement.

I chose a slide Ennerdale Water for the latest “ring test” which tests the competence of the analysts involved in routine ecological assessments using diatoms.   Everyone analyses the same slide and sends their results to me and I sort through and note areas of disagreement.   In this case, there was quite a lot of disagreement even amongst the experienced analysts but, as if to prove the point in my opening paragraph, this did had only a small effect on the conclusions that people reached on the quality of the ecosystem that the sample represented.

One of the areas of disagreement was a population of Brachysira that some described as Brachysira brebissonii whilst others suggested it was B. intermedia.   My inclination, following the illustrations in Hofmann et al’s Diatomeen im Süsswassser-Benthos von Mitteleuropa, was to call it B. intermedia as the illustrations of B. brebissonii show more broadly-rounded ends than were apparent in the Ennerdale population.  However, Bryan Kennedy, a member of our scheme, has been looking into the taxonomy of this genus as part of his PhD and directed me towards a paper by Bart van der Vijver, in which he had examined the type material for B. brebissonii (as “Navicula brebissonii Brébisson).  His illustrations show a population with more acute ends than Hofmann et al.’s illustrations.  Its shape is, in fact, much closer to that of the examples of B. intermedia that they illustrate.  Yet, we were all agreed, this taxonomic ambiguity had little effect on the interpretation that an ecologist would reach.  Most Brachysira species (with the curious exception of the type species, B. aponina) are associated with circumneutral to slightly acid water and low nutrients.   The species of the genus vary in their preference for alkalinity and hardness but, generally, indicate high quality conditions.

Another of the species present in the same sample was Frustulia crassinervia, which presents an interesting counterpoint to the situation I described for Brachysira brebissonii.   In this case, there was another possible candidate, Frustulia saxonica and, in fact, the rhombic-lanceolate outline of the Ennerdale Water population did suggest this species.  However, the clearly protracted ends and the size are more characteristic of F. crassinervia which was the name that the majority of experienced analysts opted for.   Once again, however, both species have similar ecological requirements: soft, often peaty water with low levels of enrichment.

Frustulia crassinervia from the south-east end of Ennerdale Water (circa NY 127 140), July 2016, scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).  The top illustration shows Brachysira brebissonii from the same location.   Photographs by Lydia King.

The difference between the situation for Brachysira and Frustulia is that, in the case of Frustulia, the traditional morphological taxonomy is underpinned by molecular studies whereas, in the case of Brachysira, we only have morphological evidence on which to base names.   The interesting point is that the molecular studies of Frustulia suggest that there is no genetic difference between F. crassinervia and F. saxonica.   This alone does not mean that they are not separate species (they did not look at the whole genome), but it does suggest that more work is needed before we have a full understanding of the limits of the species in this genus.   A similar study on Brachysira (and, indeed, on any genus with a surfeit of recently described species separated purely on morphological criteria) might emphasise that differences in shape to which traditional taxonomists assign so much importance are real or it might not.   That would, at least, give people such as myself who use diatoms to gain a wider perspective of ecological health a better insight into where we really need to put in time and effort to discriminate between species.   In the post I mentioned at the start of this article I referred to the nineteenth century scientist Alexander von Humbolt and his concern that scientists got so bogged down in detail that they missed the big picture (“naturgemälde”). Some things never change …

Reference

Hofmann, G., Werum, M. & Lange-Bertalot, H. (2011).  Diatomeen im Süßwasser-Benthos von Mitteleuropa.  A.R.G. Gantner Verlag K.G., Rugell.

Lange-Bertalot, H. & Moser, G. (1994).  Brachysira.  Monographie der Gattung.  Bibliotheca Diatomologica 29: 1-212.

Urbánková, P., Scharfen, V. & Kulichová, J. (2016).  Molecular and automated identification of the diatom genus Frustulia in northern Europe.  Diatom Research 31: 217-229.

Van der Vijver, B. (2014).  Analysis of the type material of Navicula brachysira Brébisson with the description of Brachysira sandrae, a new raphid diatom (Bacillariophyceae) from Iles Kerguelen (TAAF, sub-Antarctica, southern Indian Ocean).  Phytotaxa 184: 139-147.

Veselá, Urbánková, P.,Černá, K. & Neustupa, J. (2012). Ecological variation within traditional diatom morphospecies: diversity of Frustulia rhomboides sensu lato (Bacillariophyceae) in European freshwater habitats.  Phycologia 51: 552-561.

Note:

In an earlier post about diatoms from this location (see “Reflections from Ennerdale’s far side …”) I showed some images of live cells of Stenopterobia sigmatella but added a comment to say that there was a very similar species, S. densestriata, that I could not rule out on the basis of observations of live cells alone.   I now have had the opportunity to have a looked at cleaned material as well and can confirm that the population in Ennerdale Water is, indeed, S. sigmatella.  S. sigmatella has less than 24 striae in 10 micrometres whilst S. densestriata, as the name suggests, has more (> 26 / 10 micrometres).   S. densestriata is also shorter (< 110 micrometres) and narrows to more acutely-rounded ends.

We also found a few valve of S. delicatissima, the other member of the genus that has been recorded from the UK.

Stenopterobia spp. from Ennerdale Water, July 2016.  i.: part of a cleaned valve of S. sigmatella; j. S. delicatissima.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 100th of a millimetre).  Photographs by Lydia King.

Not so Bleak Midwinter?

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Occasionally – just occasionally – the gods smile on us when we least expect it.  And Wednesday was one of those days: fieldwork on a glorious winter day in the Lake District without a cloud in the sky and barely a breath of wind.  The pleasure of being outside on such a day was offset slightly by the necessity of plunging my arm into freezing cold water at intervals, but the views of the mountains beyond Ennerdale Water more than compensated for these temporary discomforts.

The coldness of the water, today, offers me a link to a book I am reading, about the 19th century German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, a polymath who was ahead of his time in many ways, and whose writing pre-empted ecological thinking of the twentieth century.   One of his strongly held beliefs was that scientists could not really understand nature from a laboratory: they had to be outside, experiencing nature first hand.   That seems to be a fine New Year message in a world where ecologists seem to spend more and more time staring at screens, and their managers are increasingly reluctant to let them spend time in the field.

The ecology of lakes and rivers in this area in winter continues to fascinate me.   Look at the picture below: a stream bed at the coldest time of year that is covered with lush growths of algae in a range of hues, most strikingly the pink-red of the Rhodophyta Audouinella, complemented by the green and blue-green algae around it.  The first young olive-green filaments shoots of Lemanea, another Rhodophyta, were also apparent at a couple of the sites that I visited, and there were thick brown diatom blooms smothering many of the stones too.   These are all thriving at a time of year when either most nature has shut down for the winter or most natural historians have plonked themselves onto the sofa to watch Living World II rather than challenging the first clause in this sentence.  You decide.

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A riot of colour on the stony substrata of the River Ehen, a few kilometres downstream of Ennerdale Water, Cumbria, January 2017. 

One of Humboldt’s big concerns was that scientists saw the big picture (“naturgemälde”) rather than getting bogged down with details.   He was someone whose mind had been formed by the Enlightenment, when the necessity of cataloguing and classifying the diversity of nature was a primary concern.  However, he saw that this was not enough, and that one had to understand the connections between these different life forms, and between each of these and their environment.  He saw the natural world as a web of interdependencies, and humans as potential disruptors of the delicate balances that existed.

The problem we have in the modern age is balancing the need to see the big picture in focus without losing site of important details.  Or, as Ed Tipping said during a meeting at CEH last year: “we stick to the principle of simplifying to just short of the point of naivety”.   He had his tongue in his cheek but there is an important point here: the complexity of the natural world means that its secrets will only be yielded to those scientists who can keep their natural proclivity to get lost in detail in check.   At the same time, if we forget that those details are out there we may reach erroneous conclusions.  And, I fear, microscopic benthic algae may be ecology’s Sirens, sitting on submerged rocks and luring the unsuspecting into a world of taxonomic detail that is too rarely accompanied by profound ecological insight.

William Wordsworth, born in Cockermouth, just a few miles away from Ennerdale, was one of Humboldt’s readers.  He recognised the need to be outside experiencing nature applied as much to a poet as to a scientist and reacting against the dry, dissected knowledge that the Enlightenment encouraged.  His words offer a succinct conclusion for this first post of 2017, and encapsulate my resolution to be as holistic as possible in my thinking during the year ahead:

For was it meant
That we should pore, and dwindle as we pore,
For every dimly pore on things minute,
On solitary objects, still beheld
In disconnection dead and spiritless,
And still dividing and dividing still
Break down all grandeur …

William Wordsworth, The Excursion, 1814

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