Algae in a stone forest


A change in location from the previous post: this one is being written on the roof terrace of a guest house in Kunming, in Yunnan Province, China, whilst sipping a cup of the local pu’er tea.   I’m in China with my family visiting my eldest son who works in Chengdu, a sprawling metropolis of 11 million people in Sichuan Province, and have escaped to the warmer climate and more sedate environs of Kunming (only 6 million people) for a few days.  We’ll then move on to Dali (a mere village, by comparison, with less than half a million people) before returning to Chengdu.

From Kunming we travelled about 120 km southeast to Shílín, the site of a strange Karst phenomenon known as the “stone forest”, a collection of upright pillars of limestone often with other limestone blocks perched precariously on top.   In geomorphological terms, we are looking at a limestone pavement on a huge scale, but with substantial erosion of the “grykes” (the gaps between the “clints”).   Geologically, it is a little more complicated than that, with the Permian limestone being later overlain by basalt which was subsequently eroded away to leave a red soil.  However, that is enough to give you some context for what follows.

The photograph at the top of the post gives you some idea of what the stone forest looks like, and also some idea of the crowds to be expected at mainstream tourist attractions in China.  At times, the mass of people and, in particular, the overlapping amplified commentaries from tour guides, dressed in the costumes of the local Sani ethnic minority, made the experience almost unbearable.  But then, as is often the case, you turn a corner, the hubbub dies away, and you are able to enjoy the ethereal landscapes almost undisturbed.  In our case, however, we turned a corner too many, found ourselves outside the officially-sanctioned tourist beat and were unceremoniously ejected by an officious security guard.

Once we had talked our way back into the park through the main entrance, using Ed’s Mandarin skills, the park was noticeably quieter.   Most of the organised tours squeeze the stone forest and a local cave network into the same trip so the morning crowds had been hustled back onto their coaches, and the whole experience in the park was much more pleasant.   Walking through the Major Stone Forest gives you an ants-eye experience of living in a limestone pavement habitat, with the clints towering above you and only occasional glimpses of sunshine.   The park authorities have provided a concrete path and steps to lead you through but it is, at times, an arduous trek with some narrow and low gaps through which to squeeze.   This, in turn, lets you get up close to the limestone and, in my case, gets the phycological antennae twitching …


The Major Stone Forest at Shílín from the inside.   The photo at the top of the post shows the Major Stone Forest from the main public viewing area.

The limestone from which the stone forest is made is largely slate-grey in colour, rather than the creamy beige that I normally associate with this rock.   Only after reading one of the interpretation boards in the park did the penny drop, and I realised that I, and thousands of other tourists, had each spent 130 RNB to stare at algae.   After my brush with officialdom in the morning I was not in the mood to scrape at the rocks to collect a sample but am guessing we are looking at the Cyanobacterium Gloeocapsa alpina or something similar (see “The mysteries of Clapham Junction …”).   We were visiting the park close to the end of the long dry season but for the next few months the climate here will be much damper, creating a more conducive environment for these microorganisms to grow.

A few of the rock faces, particularly those associated with seepages, had multicolour streaks, with the grey supplemented with pinks and greens.  The former may well be other Cyanobacteria (possibly Schizothrix) and the greens could be Apatococcus, Desmococcus or a relative (see “Little round green things …”).  There were also a few orange-red patches of Trentepohlia (see “Fake tans in the Yorkshire Dales”).   All of these are forms are familiar to me from the UK and, whilst it would be rash to assume that the species were identical to those I find back home, the genera are generally cosmopolitan, so some extrapolation can be permitted.


Algal crusts on rocks in the Major Stone Forest at Shílín, April 2019. The left hand image shows a mixture of Cyanobacteria and (possibly) green algae on a vertical surface associated with a seepage; the right hand image shows Heather photographing a growth of Trentepohlia nearby.


Trentepohlia growths inin the Major Stone Forest at Shílín, April 2019.  The picture frame spans about 10 centimetres. Photograph: Heather Kelly.

I did hunt around for some verification for these names but it is not possible to access Google Scholar in China without a VPN.  I am limited to whatever Bing throws up, and have not yet been able to find any papers on the algae of Shílín.  What I did find, during these searches, however, was an article about the world’s largest Haematococus farm, which is very close to here.   I’ve described Haematococcus in earlier posts (see “An encounter with a green alga that is red”) and mentioned that it was the source of the food colouring astaxanthin.   The combination of the limestone geology, warm weather and the huge market for food additives in China makes this possible.  Travelling in China with two vegetarians makes me realise that, even in this enormous, technocratic country, the market for natural products is growing.





Survival of the fittest (2) …

As well as the bright green flocs of Tribonema, the stream draining the Hadjipavlou chromite mine also had bright orange-red growths on some of the pebbles on its bed.  These seemed to be composed primarily of the Cyanobacterium Chamaesiphonthough I am still not sure what species.   Using the limited literature I have, from the UK and Germany, I would opt for either Chamaesiphon polymorphusor C. polonicus.   This particular alga was very easy to remove from stones, compared to other epilithic Chamaesiphon species (see “A bigger splash …”).  This is a feature of C. polymorphus, though the colour is more typical of C. polonicus*.  On the other hand, that bright colour could be the response to high solar radiation, so maybe my north European guides are not that reliable.  It could be something else altogether.


Chamaesiphon growths on pebbles in the stream draining Hadjipavlou chromite mine in the Troodos mountains, Cyprus, March 2019.


Colonies of Chamaesiphon from Hadjipavlou chromite mine under the microscope.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre). 

In addition to the Chamaesiphon, there were a few diatoms, mostly Achnanthidium minutissimumand Meridion circulare.   These are typical species of metal-rich streams, as is the general lack of diversity that was evident.   There were also a few filaments of the cyanobacterium Phormidium, along with quite a few Paramecium and Vorticella.  As these are both heterotrophs that feed on organic matter, their abundance is probably at least partly a reflection of the long time that the sample spent in my suitcase between collection and analysis.  The latter is a fascinating organism to watch: it is a goblet-shaped cell with a fringe of cilia around the lip (or “peristome”).  These beat in unison to create water currents that draw small particles towards the cell.   These particles mostly at least an order of magnitude smaller than the algae)  are then collected in food vacuoles where they are digested.   A few of these vacuoles can be seen in the image of Vorticella below.

Vorticella is attached to its substrate by a stalk which contains contractile filaments, giving it spring-like qualities.  Watching a Vorticella is a beguiling experience, with the undulating rows of cilia drawing food into the vestibule (as the opening is known).  At intervals, the whole cell lurched across the field of view as the “spring” in the stalk suddenly contracted, shortening the stalk.  After this, the stalk would gradually extend again, the cilia not having missed a beat meanwhile.   This process may simply be a device that enables the Vorticellato exploit its locality to the full, as well as creating some additional turbulence to keep a steady flow of particles towards the peristome.  To be honest, I haven’t seen a more convincing explanation but, even if we don’t know why it does what it does, Vorticella is a fascinating organism to watch, whether or not I understand what is going on.

I’ll be coming back to talk more about the diatoms in a future post, and writing these posts has also reminded me that I’ve never written about the interesting mine sites almost on my own doorstep.  I cut my ecological teeth looking at these habitats back in the 1980s and they are striking examples of natural selection in action.   So, plenty of potential for more left-field natural history …


Other organisms present in the Hadjipavlou chromite mine. a. – d.: Meridion circulare; e. Phormidiumsp.; f. Vorticellasp.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre). 

* Note: after I had written this post Brian Whitton confirmed that it was, most likely, Chamaesiphon polonicus.

Survival of the fittest (1) …


When I signed up to a trip to Cyprus in late March I was anticipating feeling some warm Mediterranean sun on my skin after the ravages of the British winter.  I did not expect snow and sleet.   However, as one of our destinations was the Troodos mountains, the location of Cyprus’ only ski resort, maybe it was a case of unrealistic expectations.   Fortunately, we realised our mistake just in time to pack some warm clothes, and the unseasonable weather did, at least, mean that the spring flowers at lower altitudes were, even by Cypriot standards, particularly impressive.

I was in Cyprus primarily as a camp follower on a reconnaissance trip for a geology and botany excursion next year.   Cyprus is, to put it in layman’s terms, the outcome of a collision between the African and European continental plates.   The Troodos mountains are a geologist’s paradise, having a wide range of features arising from this and from associated volcanic activity.   As the molten rocks cooled, minerals precipitate out and the resulting geological strata reflect differences in the melting points of these minerals.   Some of these minerals, such as chromite, are commercially valuable and have been mined for centuries.   Indeed, the name Cyprus itself is derived from cuprous, the Greek word for copper, which was mined here since 4000 BC.

The Hadjipavlou mine is set amidst pine forests close to the highest point of the Troodos.  It was an active chromite mine from 1950 to 1954 and from 1979 to 1982 but was abandoned when cheaper sources of chromite became available in South Africa.   Over a million tonnes of ore were extracted in the period when the chromite mines in the area were active, but now there are few obvious signs apart from this adit driven into the hillside.   A small stream bearing water that has percolated through the rocks and collected in the mine’s galleries emerges from the mine entrance and tumbles down the hillside to join the stream below.   This, on closer inspection, has some quite interesting microbial growths.

First of all, having been told that this is a chromite mine, you might expect the water to carry toxic concentrations of heavy metals.   So you might also be surprised to see abundant growths of bright green algae thriving in the stream immediately downstream of the mine entrance.   This is, in fact, a common phenomenon in mine waters and happens, we think, because the fast-growing algae evolve metal tolerance whilst the animals that feed on them are slower to adapt.   This is, literally, survival of the fittest and, with nothing to eat them, the algae grow prolifically.

These filaments belong to the genus Tribonemawhich, despite being bright green in colour, actually belongs to the yellow-green algae, the Xanthophyta, rather than to the green algae.  This group is actually more closely related to the diatoms than to the green algae, though it can be hard to understand why simply by peering through a microscope.  One useful test is to add a little iodine  solutionto the slide: this binds to the starch inside green algae cells, staining them a dark brown colour.   The Xanthophyta, by contrast, do not have starch as their storage product so the cells are not stained by iodine.   The only other member of this group that I have discussed in this blog is Vaucheria, a very different alga (see “Who do you think you are?”).


Tribonema cf affinein the channel draining the Hadjipavlou chromite mine in the Troodos mountains, Cyprus, March 2019.   a. close-up of the alga in situ; b.  microscopic view of filaments; c. fragments of disintegrated filaments showing the H-shaped cell endings.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 100thof a millimetre).   

Tribonemahas simple, unbranched filaments with two or more plate-like chloroplasts arranged around the cell periphery.   One other feature is the arrangement of the cell wall, which tends to consist of two overlapping halves.  When filaments disintegrate (as they often do) the fragments have an H-shape, with each end forming half the cell wall of a different cell.   The cells are, in fact, cylindrical but this is not apparent with the flattened perspective of a high magnification objective.   This feature is not universal in the Xanthophyta, nor is it unique to this group (a few green filamentous algae show the same characteristic) but it is a useful hint that you may be looking at Tribonema.

Whilst lush growths of algae is a common feature of streams draining mines, the species that form these growths can vary.   In the northern Pennines, I am used to seeing green algae in these habitats, but there are at least three different genera that I find.  Typically there is just one filamentous alga in this location, and they tend to be  constant over time: they are reliable sources for material for undergraduate practical classes as a result.  There is more to this story but I will have to come back to it at some point in the future.  .

There is also more to the algal flora of the Hadjipavlou chromite mine but, again, that will have to wait for another post.  I should also confess that, although I visited the mine briefly last year, these samples were collected by Heather, whilst I was sitting snugly below the snow line.

The complexities of measuring mass…


Once upon a time, measuring the quantity of algae growing on the beds of streams and rivers was a painstaking, slow process that invariably revealed large amounts of spatial and temporal variation that, very often, obscured the ecological signals you were looking for. That has changed in the last decade thanks to the availability of field fluorimeters such as the BenthoTorch.  This makes it much quicker and easier to measure chlorophyll concentrations, the usual proxy for algal quantity.  Thanks to devices such as this it is now much easier to discover that your ecological signal is masked by spatial and temporal variation.

We’ve generated a lot of data about the fluxes of algae in the River Ehen using a BenthoTorch over the past five years and are in a position where we can start to make some generalisations about how the quantity of algae vary over the course of a year.  In broad terms, the results I showed in “The River Ehen in January” back in 2014 have not varied greatly over subsequent years, with peak biomass in mid-winter and low biomass in the summer (due, we presume, to intense grazing by invertebrates).  Curiously, we see a much less distinctive seasonal pattern in the nearby Croasdale Beck, but that is a story for another day….

The BenthoTorch uses an algorithm to partition the fluorescence signal between three major algal groups and, though this is not without issues (see below), I thought it might be interesting to see how these groups varied with biomass trends, and consider how this links to ecological theory.  The first group I’m considering are the green algae which, in this river, are mainly filamentous forms.   The general pattern, seen in the graph below, is for a gradual increase in the proportion of green algae, which fits with the current understanding of thicker biofilms having greater structural complexity with filamentous algae out-competing attached single celled algae to create a “canopy” of algae that are more effective at capturing light and other resources.  The relationship is, however, strongly wedge-shaped so, whilst many of the thickest biofilms have a lot of green algae, there are also thick biofilms where green algae are scarce or even non-existent.  Croasdale Beck shows a similar, but less pronounced, trend.


Relationship between the proportion of green algae and the total quantity of benthic algae (expressed as chlorophyll concentration) in the River Ehen (a.) and Croasdale Beck (b.).   The blue lines show quantile regression fits at p = 0.8, 0.5 and 0.2.   The image at the top of the post shows Ben Surridge using a BenthoTorch to measure algal biomass beside Croasdale Beck in Cumbria.

The second graph shows that this pattern of a gradual increase in proportion is also the case for diatoms and, once again, there is a broad wedge of points with an upward trend.  But, once again, there are also samples where biomass is high but diatoms are present in very low numbers or are even absent.   What is going on?

The problem is clear I think, if one looks at the final image in “The only way is up …” where the very patchy nature of algal communities in the River Ehen (and, indeed, many other rivers).   There are plenty of algae on this boulder, but not organised in a homogeneous manner: some zones on the boulder are almost pure diatom whilst others are almost pure green algae (and there are also zones that are almost pure Lemanea– I’ll come to that in a future post).   We try to sample the stones as randomly as possible so you can see the potential for getting very different numbers depending on where, on a stone, we point the BenthoTorch’s sensor.


Relationship between the proportion of diatoms and the total quantity of benthic algae (expressed as chlorophyll concentration) in the River Ehen (c.) and Croasdale Beck (d.).   The blue lines show quantile regression fits at p = 0.8, 0.5 and 0.2.  

With experience, you can make an educated guess about the types of algae present in a biofilm.  I’ve tried to capture this with my watercolours, using washes of raw sienna for the diatoms and a grass-green for the green algae, which roughly matches the colour of their respective growths in the photo in my earlier post.   The two groups of algae a are relatively distinct on that particular boulder.   The top row roughly matches the upper “edge” of the graph showing variation in diatoms, whilst the bottom row emulates the upper “edge” of the graph showing variation in green algae.  These are the two extreme situations; however, we also often see darker brown growths in the field, which can be recreated by mixing the raw sienna and grass-green together.  When I peer through a microscope I often see green algae smothered in diatoms: genera such as Oedogoniumare particularly prone as they have less mucilage than some of the others we find in the Ehen. Their filaments often host clusters of Fragilariacells as well as Achnanthidium minutissimum, whilst stalked Gomphonemaand chains of Tabellaria flocculosaoften grow through the tangle of green filaments.   The dark brown colour is deepened yet further by the colour of the underlying rock, so my effort on white watercolour paper is a little misleading.


A colour chart showing how different proportions of green algae and diatoms influence the colour of biofilms.

The final graph shows how, as the average biomass increases in the River Ehen, so the variability in biomass also increases.   The River Ehen is one of the cleanest rivers I know but I suspect that this pattern in benthic algal quantity could be reproduced in just about any river in the country. What I would not expect to see in any but the purest and most natural ecosystems is quite so much variation in the types of algae present.   Once there is a little enrichment, so I would expect the algae to become more of a monoculture of a dominant filamentous alga plus associated epiphytes.  Like much that happens in the microscopic world of rivers, it is easier to describe than it is to measure.

That, however, is only part of the story but I’ll come back to explain the patterns in the other main groups of algae in the Ehen and Croasdale Beck in my next post.


The relationship between mean chlorophyll density and the standard deviation (based on measurements from five separate stones) for samples from the River Ehen and Croasdale Beck. 


Secular icons?


I’ve got two pictures on display as part of an exhibition at Durham University Botanic Gardens, both showing abstract or semi-abstract views of algae.  One is my sextych of the alga Apatococcus(see “Little round green things …”) and the other is a triptych based on Haematococcus, an alga which I wrote about in “An encounter with a green alga that is red” back in 2013.   Both pictures were painted for my final degree show back in 2008 and both addressed questions about the boundaries between abstract and representational art.

The point that I was trying to make with these images is that the boundary between abstract and representational art depends partly on what the viewer knows about the subject matter and, in the case of algae, this is usually not very much.  In cases such as these, the legend becomes very important as a means of bridging the gap between abstraction and reality by providing just enough information to help viewers make sense of the content (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund Prize (2)”).   In the case of microscopic images, this should always include some indication of scale, written in terms that non-biologists can easily understand (I would always write “1/100thof a millimetre”, rather than “10 micrometres”, for example).


Haematococcus. Triptych.   2008 50 x 130 cm Acrylic, resin and PVA on canvas.

This issue of viewers being able to “unlock” the meaning of images extends beyond the abstract/representational boundary that I encounter when displaying images of the microscopic world.  Exactly the same challenges occur when, for example, secular western Europeans look at eastern Orthodox icons, a subject that occasionally creeps into this blog (see, for example, “Unorthodox icons”.   My own curiosity about this art form led me to spend a week studying icon painting at the Quaker College in Woodbrooke, in the suburbs of Birmingham.  About ten minutes away from Woodbrooke there is the Serbian Orthodox church of St Lazar (built after the second world war by Yugoslav refugees with financial support from the Cadbury family, the Quaker philanthropists who also established Woodbrooke).

I talked a little about the practice of icon painting in “The art of icons …”.  Today, I am more interested in the symbolism.   A secular westerner can look at many of the icons I’ve depicted and broadly catagorise the contents: most would recognise that Fr Nenad, the priest of the Selly Oak Orthodox church, is holding an icon that depicts the crucifixion, for example, or that the icon just to the left of the centre of the doors in the iconostasis in the lower image depicts the Virgin and Child.  However, the symbolism goes much deeper.   I have a spotter’s guide to icons (sad, I know …) and it lists twenty eight different variants on the basic depiction virgin and child, differing in the physical relationship of Mary and Jesus, their facial expressions and the setting.  Each of these have a slightly different meaning for the Orthodox faithful.   The westerner sees “virgin” and “child”, the eastern Orthodox devotee sees so much more.


The Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Prince Lazar in Selly Oak, Birmingham with, right, Father Nenad displaying an icon of the crucifixion. 

What’s all this got to do with painting algae, you may ask.   Scientific illustratation and icon painting are two branches of applied art, where the subject matter serves a higher purpose.  Both, in their own way, try to help viewers understand their place in the world.  If you are not religious, you may not be comfortable with this comparison but, for most of Europe, east and west, until the Enlightenment, this would have been the case.   In both cases, however, the image cannot be viewed in isolation, the viewer needs the appropriate “keys” to unlock meaning.   Even then, the viewer is not a passive observer.   The icon requires a response from the viewer, it is the focus for contemplation and meditation and, I suggest, scientific images, when displayed as “art” should play a similar role, inviting viewers to reflect upon the mysteries of the natural world and demanding a response.


The iconostasis at the Serbian Orthodox Church in Selly Oak.

A twist in the tale …


After my sojourn in East Durham, described in the previous post, I have travelled back to the Pennines for this one, crossing the River Wear at Wolsingham before driving up onto the fells and finally dropping down to the woodlands that are Hamsterley Forest.  This is a large man-made plantation, dating from the 1930s and popular for recreation. In January, however, the forest is quiet, and I only have a few mountain bikers and a lone dog walker for company as I peer into the peaty waters of Euden Beck.   This stream rises on the open fells of Hamsterley Common, between Weardale and Teesdale, before flowing through the forest and joining Spurl’s Wood Beck just downstream from where I am standing, to become Hamsterley Beck.  This then joins the Wear a few kilometres downstream from Wolsingham.


Euden Beck, just above the forest drive in Hamsterley Forest, January 2019.  The photograph at the top of the post shows a view towards Hamsterley Forest. 

There is a mixture of diatoms growing on the stones here but I am most interested in the genus Fragilaria today.   One of the curiosities of this genus is that we often find several representatives growing at the same site at the same time, reminiscent of the old adage about London buses (“you wait ages, and then three come along at once”).   I’ve written about this before (see “Baffled by the benthos (2)” and “When is a diatom like a London bus?”) and Euden Beck is another good example of this conundrum in practice.

Today, I could see quite a few cells of Fragilaria teneraand smaller numbers ofF. gracilisplus a newly-described species that I will talk more about later in the post.  Fragilaria teneraforms long, needle-like cells, often clustering together to form sea urchin-like masses growing out from either a filamentous alga or particle to which they are attached (see “Food for thought in the River Ehen” for an illustration).  Most of the ones that I saw in my samples from Euden Beck were either single cells or pairs of cells, presumably following a recent division. Note how the second cell from the left in the figure below is not as straight as the others.   This is something that I often see with Fragilaria populations in streams in the northern Pennines, and indicates that there may be heavy metal pollution in the water.  There are a lot of abandoned lead mines in the northern Pennines and, sure enough, when I looked at a large scale map, I found one that I had not previously noticed in the upper part of Euden Beck’s catchment.


Live cells of Fragilaria tenera(a. – d.) and F. heatherae from Euden Beck, January 2019.   a., b. and e. are valve views; c. and d. are girdle views.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre). 

The next image shows these valve abnormalities even more clearly, with almost all of the cells showing aberrations in their outline.   These images are from an older sample; the curiosity here is that whilst most of the Fragilaria tenera valves were twisted, fewer of the valves of Fragilaria gracilisare twisted, whilst few of the valves of the third Fragilaria species show any abnomality in their outline at all.   This species is very common in northern Pennine streams, and I have often seen distorted valves of this species in streams polluted by mine discharges.  This makes the discrepancy between the outlines of this and Fragilaria tenera in Euden Beck particularly intriguing.


Fragilaria tenera from a sample collected from Euden Beck in June 2012.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre).   Photographs: Lydia King.

I say “Fragilaria gracilis” with a modicum of trepidation as a recent study in which I have been involved, suggests that there may well be at least two species.  These are, as far as we can tell, indistinguishable using characteristics that can be seen with the light microscope though we know that they are genetically quite distinct, and both are widespread, turning up not just in the UK but in other parts of Europe too.

The third species, to the best of our knowledge, does not match the description of any other Fragilaria species, and we are in the process of publishing it as a new species, Fragilaria heatherae.   We have found it a number of samples, not just from the UK but also from sites elsewhere in Europe.   These, by comparison with the other two species, show very little distortion at all.   Whilst several authors have noted this phenomenon in the past, the physiological cause is still not understood. My guess is that the metal ions are displacing a metal co-factor in an enzyme that is involved in the process of laying down the silica cell wall.   Fragilaria seems to be particularly susceptible, but this may be because their long needle-like cells show the distortions more clearly than in some genera but, based on the evidence from Euden Beck, there are clearly differences in susceptibility between species.

Once again, I seem to be ending a post having asked more questions than I have answered. That is always frustrating but another way of looking at this is to realise that the frontiers of ecology are only ever a short drive away from where you are now.  It is very nice to cross oceans to visit rain forests and coral reefs, but there are adventures to be had closer to your doorstep.


Fragilaria gracilis from a sample collected from Euden Beck in June 2012.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre).   Photographs: Lydia King.


Fragilaria heatherae” from a sample collected in Euden Beck in June 2012.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre).   Photographs: Lydia King


Duong, T.T., Morin, S., Herlory, O. & Feurtet-Mazel, A. (2008). Seasonal effects of cadmium accumulation in periphytic diatom communities of freshwater biofilms.  Aquatic Toxicology90: 19-28.

Falasco, E., Bona, F., Ginepro, M., Hlúbiková, D., Hoffmann, L. & Ector, L. (2009). Morphological abnormalities of diatom silica walls in relation to heavy metal contamination and artificial growth conditions.  Water SA35: 595-606.

McFarland, B.H., Hill, B.H. & Willingham, W.T. (1996). Abnormal Fragilaria spp. (Bacillariophyceae) in Streams Impacted by Mine Drainage. Journal of Freshwater Ecology 12: 141-149.

Castle Eden Dene in January


The story so far: in 2018 I made bi-monthly visits to the River Wear, my local river and tried to capture, in my posts, the changes in the algae that occurred over the course of 12 months (follow the links in “A year in the life of the River Wear” to learn more).  It was an interesting exercise, partly because last summer’s exceptional weather led to some intriguing changes over the course of the year.   Consequently, as 2019 dawned, I thought I should find a different type of stream within a short drive from my home and try again.  So, bearing in mind that Wolsingham is south and west from where I live, I turned in the opposite direction and drove due east instead, stopping on the edge of the brutal concrete housing estates of Peterlee, a most unprepossessing location for a National Nature Reserve.

My journey has brought me right across the Permian limestone that dominates the eastern Durham landscape. Its escarpment rises up close to my home, and I have written about the algae that live in the ponds at the foot of it (see “A hitchhiker’s guide to algae…”).  On the other side, however, the limestone ends in a series of cliffs overlooking the North Sea and small streams have cut into the limestone to create a series of wooded valleys, or “denes”.   I’ve come to Castle Eden Dene, the largest of these: if you want a cultural reference point, watch the film “Billy Elliott”, set just a few miles further north along the coast, or read Barry Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy.

We made our way down the footpath into the dene on a crisp and very cold winter morning, past the old yew trees from which the name is derived, and myriad ferns.   A deer bounded across the path ahead and disappeared into some scrub, and then we turned a corner and looked into Castle Eden Burn, which runs along the bottom of the dene.   To my surprise, the stream was dry.   This is a valley that cuts through limestone, so it is common for the stream to be dry in the summer, but I had not expected it to be dry in the middle of winter.  Thinking back, however, I realised that there has not been much rain for some weeks, and this may have meant that the water table, still low, perhaps, after last summer’s dry weather, is too low for the stream to flow.


Diatoms and cyanobacterial colonies in Blunt’s Burn, Castle Eden Dene, January 2019.   The top photograph shows diatom growths on bedrock; the lower image shows Phormidium retzii colonies, each about two millimetres across.   The photograph at the top of the post shows a yew tree overhanging Castle Eden Burn. 

A few hundred metres further down the dene, we finally heard the sound of running water where a small tributary stream, Blunt’s Burn, joined the main burn.  Judging from my OS map, it drains a good part of Peterlee so it might not have very high water quality.  It was, however, a stream and it did, as I could see with the naked eye, have some distinct diatom-rich growths.    These, I discovered later, were dominated by the diatoms such as Navicula tripunctataand N. lanceolata which are typical of cold weather conditions (see, for example, “The River Wear in January”).   A closer look showed that the orange-brown diatom growths were, in places, flecked with dark brown spots.  Somehow, I managed to get my cold fingers to manipulate a pair of forceps and pick up a few of these spots for closer examination.


Diatoms from Blunt’s Burn, January 2019: a. Navicula tripunctata; b. N. lanceolata; c.Gyrosigma cf. acuminatum; d. Nitzschiacf. linearis (girdle view); e. N. linearis(valve view).  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre).

I had a good idea, when I first saw these spots, that they were colonies of a filamentous cyanobacterium and, peering through my microscope a few hours later, once I had warmed myself up, I was relieved to see that I was right.  I picked out a dark patch and teased it apart before putting it onto a slide with a drop of water.  Once I had done this, I could see the tangle of filaments along with a mass of organic and inorganic particles and lots of diatoms.   The filaments themselves were simple chains of cells (a “trichome”) of Phormidium retzii, surrounded by a sheath.   There were also, however, a few cases, where I could see the sheath without the Phormidium trichome, and in some those I could also see diatom cells.

There are some diatoms that make their own mucilage tubes (see “An excuse for a crab sandwich, really …”) but Nitzschia is not one of those most often associated with tube-formation (there are a few exceptions).    On the other hand, there are some references to Nitzschiacells squatting in tubes made by other diatoms.   Some of those who have observed this refer to Nitzschia as a “symbiont” but whether there is any formal arrangement or is just a by-product of Nitzschia’s ability to glide and seek out favourable microhabitats, is not clear.  There are, as far as I can see, no references, to diatoms inhabiting the sheaths of Cyanobacteria, though Brian Whitton tells me he has occasionally seen this too.

We made our way back along the dry bed of Castle Eden Burn.  Many of the rocks here were quite slippery, suggesting that there had been some water flowing along it in the recent past.  That encouraged me to scrub at the top surface of one with my toothbrush and I managed to get a sample that certainly contains diatoms though these were mostly smaller than the ones that I found in Blunt’s Burn, and there was also a lot of mineral matter.   I’ll need to get that sample prepped and a permanent slide prepared before I can report back on just what diatoms thrive in this tough habitat.  Watch this space …


Cyanobacterial filaments from Blunt’s Burn, Co. Durham, January 2019: a. a single trichome of Phormidium retzii; b. and c. empty sheaths colonised by cells of Nitzschia; d. aPhormidiumfilament with a sheath and a trichome but also with epiphytes and adsorbed organic and inorganic matter.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre).   


Carr, J.M. & Hergenrader, G.L. (2004).  Occurrence of three Nitzschia(Bacillariophyceae) taxa within colonies of tube-forming diatoms. Journal of Phycology23: 62-70.

Houpt, P.M. (1994). Marine tube-dwelling diatoms and their occurrence in the Netherlands. Netherlands Journal of Aquatic Ecology28: 77-84.

Lobban, C.S. (1984). Marine tube-dwelling diatoms of the Pacific coast of North America. I. BerkeleyaHasleaNitzschia, and Navicula sect. Microstigmaticae.  Canadian Journal of Botany63: 1779-1784.

Lobban, C.S. & Mann, D.G. (1987).  The systematics of the tube-dwelling diatom Nitzschia martiana and Nitzschia section Spathulatae. Canadian Journal of Botany.  65: 2396-2402,