Different tarn, different desmids …

Geoff and Chris, two of our band of desmid hunters, chose to stay in the FBA’s brand new holiday apartments and, rather than cross the lake to join us on Saturday morning they headed out to Moss Eccles Tarn, in the area between Esthwaite Water and Windermere.   One of Dave’s first dips into one of their samples yielded an almost pure monoculture of another filamentous desmid, Spherozosma vertebratum which presented some beguiling abstract patterns on my computer monitor.

Spherozosma vertebratum from Moss Eccles Tarn, September 2017.   Scale bar: 25 micrometres (= 1/40th of a millimetre).

Curiously, after our first encounter with Spherozosma vertebratum we did not see it in any of our other dips into the Moss Eccles samples although there were plenty of other desmids on display.   The most abundant of these was Staurastrum productum and, usefully, there were examples showing both apical and side views.   The three arms are distinctive (and distinguish it from relatives such as S. arachne which have five) and you can also see the knobbly “verrucae” on the spines as well as a broad mucilaginous envelope around the cells.

Staurastrum productum in side (left) and apical (right) views.  Images photographed from a computer monitor so apologies for their poor quality.  Scale bar: 25 micrometres (= 1/40th of a millimetre).

Another desmid with spines and mucilage was quite common.  This was Staurodesmus bulnheimii.  Spines slow the rate of sinking so are associated with several genera of predominately planktonic desmids.   The star-shaped arrangement of colonies of the diatom Asterionella formosa play a similar role (see “Little bugs have littler bugs upon their backs to bite ‘em”).   There were also several cells  of a small Cosmarium species, including some that had recently divided and the image shows how one cell has split down the central isthmus and a new semicell is growing back on each of the two daughter cells.   Finally, I have included an illustration of Micrasterias radiosa.  To the uninitiated this may look little different to M. compereana, illustrated in the previous post, but if you look closely you will see that the incisions between the lobes are much deeper in M. radiosa.

One sample from Moss Eccles Tarn kept me busy for half the morning and this account describes only part of the diversity.   Note how the differences between this and the School Knott Tarn sample are not just in the genera and species present but also in the life-forms I found.  The School Knott sample was from a Sphagnum squeezing whilst the Moss Eccles sample was from a plankton net.  That explains why I saw more spine-bearing desmids in the latter.  If I had looked at a plankton sample from School Knott and a Sphagnum squeezing from Moss Eccles, I might have found a different balance of life-forms between the two tarns.   But time was running out and I had to move on …

More desmids from Moss Eccles Tarn, September 2017: a. Staurodesmus bulnheimii; b. Cosmarium quadrifarium var. hexastichum; c. Euastrum cf. gemmatum.   Scale bar: 25 micrometres (= 1/40th of a millimetre).

Micrasterias radiosa from Moss Eccles Tarn, September 2017.   Scale bar: 25 micrometres (= 1/40th of a millimetre).


Lessons from School Knott Tarn …

As not everyone could join us on our excursion on Friday afternoon, we repeated the exercise on Saturday morning, heading to a small tarn just a short walk from Windermere and Bowness.   Despite its proximity to two of the busiest towns in the Lake District, there were very few other people around to disturb our peace whilst we collected samples.   As at Kelly Hall and Long Moss Tarns, Dave had his plankton net out, but we also explored a boggy region at one end, finding more patches of Sphagnum but also extensive growths of Utricularia minor (Lesser Bladderwort), one of a small number of aquatic carnivorous plants.   Dave was particularly pleased by this find as he associates this particular plant with rich hauls of desmids.

It was tempting to linger in the sunshine beside School Knott Tarn but the green tinge of the water that dripped out of the Sphagnum squeezings in particular was enough to lure us towards the Freshwater Biological Association’s laboratories in order to start examining our samples.

Utricularia minor (Lesser Bladderwort) from School Knott Tarn, near Windermere, September 2017.   Several of the spherical bladders which trap small invertebrates are visible on the plant.

My selection of photographs below shows just a part of the diversity that we encountered during our microscopic examinations.  I was using a borrowed set-up and the images are all from photographs of the desmids displayed on computer monitor, which is far from ideal.   Some of the larger desmids – one large Closterium species in particular – were too large to fit onto the screen and have had to be omitted from this account.  There were also a number of cells of Eremosphaera (see “More from Loughrigg Fell”) and some Cyanobacteria (Merismopedia was quite common) so this is a very partial description of our microscopical adventures in School Knott Tarn.

The first two desmids, Spirotaenia condensata and Cylindrocystis gracilis, belong to a group of desmids called “saccoderm desmids”.  These are more closely related to filamentous green algae of the Zygnemetaceae that are old friends of this blog (see “Concentrating on Carbon, for example) and, in fact, we could think of these genera as being unicellular analogues of their filamentous cousins.   Spirotaenia, with its helical chloroplast, for example, recalls Spirogyra whilst Cylindrocystis’ two star-shaped chloroplasts is reminiscent of Zygnema.  Mesotaenium, which we did not see in this sample, has a plate-like chloroplast similar to that in Mougeotia.

The next two illustrations both show species of Micrasterias.  Of these, M. compereana generated a vigorous discussion amongst our experts. This would have been described as M. fimbriata using the latest British floras but a paper has been published recently which uses molecular data to demonstrated the need to split the species. Finally, we have representatives of Euastrum and Haplotaenium, two genera that we also met at Dock Tarn (see “Damp days in search of desmids …”) although the species are different.   Haplotaenium differs from Pleurotaenium in the number and form of the chloroplasts and also because it lacks a terminal vacuole.

Desmids from Sphagnum squeezings from School Knott Tarn, September 2017: a. Spirotaenia condensata; b. Cylindrocystis gracilis; c. Micrasterias compereana; d. Micrasterias crux-meltensis; e. Euastrum oblongum; f. Haplotaenium rectum.  Scale bar: 25 micrometres (= 1/40th of a millimetre).

Four more desmids are illustrated on the lower plate.   Of these, we have seen Netrium digitus in Dock Tarn and the illustration there is better than this one, showing the undulating nature of the chloroplast margins quite clearly.   The desmid below this, Closterium closterioides caused some confusion at first.   We usually associate Closterium with lunate (moon-shaped) cells (see “More from Loughrigg Fell”) but this species is straight, sending me towards the section on Netrium in my Flora.  However, Netrium lacks terminal vacuoles whereas this specimen has prominent vacuoles at both ends.   We also found a variety, C. closterioides var. intermedium, in the same sample.

The final desmid that I have illustrated is a filamentous form: Desmidium schwartzii.  In contrast to Hyalotheca dissilens (see “Desmids from the Pirin mountains”) there is no obvious mucilaginous sheath around this specimen, but this may be an anomaly of this population or an artefact of the microscopy set-up.   We are looking at the side view of a chain of cells but if we were to look at the end view of one cell it would be triangular in this particular species.  The chloroplast fills most of the cell and has projections running into the corners of the cells.  However, as the filaments of the cells are slightly twisted, these projections appear to shift in position from cell to cell, giving a helical appearance.  I’ve tried to illustrate this with a schematic diagram.

More desmids from Sphagnum squeezings from School Knott Tarn, September 2017: g. Netrium digitus; h. Closterium closterioides var. closterioides; i. C. closterioides var. intermedium; j. Desmidium schwartzii Scale bar: 25 micrometres (= 1/40th of a millimetre).

This short post gives some idea of the diversity in a single sample from a single Tarn.   Dave handed all the samples we collected over to David Williamson on his way back south and we’ll get a fuller list of their diversity in due course.  This one sample occupied me for the latter part of Saturday morning and all of the afternoon.   On Sunday, I moved on to look at another sample and I’ll write about that in another post very soon.

A schematic view of a chain of Desmidium cells, showing the arrangement of the chloroplast seen in apical view (k.) and the implications of slight twisting of the filament on appearance (l.).  Diagram adapted from John et al. (2011).


John, D.M., Whitton, B.A. & Brock, A.J. (2011). The Freshwater Algal Flora of the British Isles. 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Neustupa, J., Šťastný, J. & Škaloud, P. (2014). Splitting of Micrasterias fimbriata (Desmidiales, Viridiplantae) into two monophyletic species and description of Micrasterias compereana sp. nov.  Plant Ecology and Evolution 147: 405-411.

The stresses of summertime …

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.

Damp days in search of desmids …

Seatoller, in Borrowdale, is the wettest place in England, so we should not have been surprised by the persistent drizzle that accompanied us as we set off hunting for desmids last week.  The combination of Borrowdale’s hard volcanic rocks and a damp climate combine to create ideal habitats for bog-loving desmids and I had intelligence that Dock Tarn, on the fells above Borrowdale, was a hot spot of desmid diversity.   Getting there, however, was no easy task.  Though just a couple of kilometres from Stonethwaite on the map, there were an awful lot of contour lines awfully close together between the beginning and end of our walk.   The footpath zig-zagged through ancient woodland clinging to a steep hillside until we emerged onto the moorland above.  We then made our way across a plateau covered with heather moorland until we saw the tarn stretching away into the mist in front of us.

You know you are in good desmid habitat when there is water percolating into your body from both ends: rain dripping down from the hood of your cagoule and dampness seeping in through your shoes.  They are organisms that love marshy, boggy conditions, especially in areas where the water is as soft as it is here.   The alternative to damp feet would be to either climb up from Borrowdale in Wellingtons or waders or carry them up that steep hillside in a rucksack.   However, I suspect that the mud at the bottom of the tarn was too soft and deep for Wellington boots and lugging waders up that hillside would have been hard work so damp feet was the price I had to pay.   I leaned out as far as I could from the shore to grab some of the sedge stems which had a visible coating of attached algae, and also squeezed the peaty water from a few handfuls of Sphagnum that I pulled from a boggy pool.  That would have to do on this particular morning as the rain was now soaking through my trousers and, in any case, there were places I needed to be later that morning.   I shoved the bottles containing my samples into my rucksack and followed the path back down the hillside.

Epiphytic algae growing around a sedge stem in the outflow of Dock Tarn, Cumbria, July 2017.   The width of the stem plus epiphytes is about half a centimetre.

Dock Tarn is one of a number of sites identified as an “Important Plant Area” (IPA) on the basis of the rich desmid flora, largely due to work over the years by David Williamson.   It qualifies as an IPA on four criteria: the presence of threatened species, high diversity, a long history of study and because it represents a “threatened habitat”.   David Williamson has recorded over 50 species from this location, 13 of which are candidates for a “potential Red Data List”.   A few of these are illustrated in the figures below.   One of the species in the first image, Haplotaenium minutum, belongs to a genus only recently separated from Pleurotaenium, which looks very similar to the untrained eye (the difference lies in the structure of the ridges on the chloroplast).  Looking at these long cylindrical cells serves to emphasise just how much dexterity Chris Carter needed to produce his Hilda Canter-Lund prize winning image.  Images in the second plate include two more species of the genus Xanthidium, which we met in “Desmids on the defensive …”.

Dock tarn desmids: a. Netrium digitus var. latum; b. Tetmemorus brebissonii; c. Haplotaenium minutum.  Scale bar: 25 micrometres ( = 1/40th of a millimetre). 

The desmids in the lower plate, in particular, show one of their key characteristics very clearly: their cells are divided into two distinct lobes (“semicells”) joined by an isthmus (the word desmid comes from the Greek desmos, meaning “bond”).  The image of Staurastrum manfeldtii var. productum also shows a number of bacteria growing on the cell: these are probably growing within the mucilage that desmids secrete around themselves whilst there are distinct pyrenoids in the two Xanthidium species.  Their predilection for soft water means that they need the carbon-concentrating mechanisms that these contain if they are to thrive.   Not all desmids live in water as soft as this, and some are able to use inorganic bicarbonate to fuel their photosynthetic engine, but there will be little or no bicarbonatae in a habitat such as Dock Tarn.   I wrote about these carbon concentrating mechanisms in algae from Ennerdale Water (see “Concentrating on carbon …”) and the two filamentous algae that featured in that post, Mougeotia and Spirogyra, both belong to the same class within the green algae as the desmids (Conjugatophyceae or Zygnemtetophyceae).

There will be more about desmids on this blog over the next few months in preparation for a the weekend of 15-17 September when I am organising a joint meeting of the British Phycological Society and Quekett Microscopical Club in Windermere.  We’ll be visiting some other Lake District tarns known to be rich in desmids during this weekend and have Dave Johns and Allan Pentecost on hand, amongst others, to offer expert advice on what we find.  There are still a few places left, so hurry up to book your place.  I haven’t done a great job of selling the Cumbrian climate in this post but we have the use of the Freshwater Biological Association facilities, including a laboratory and the library, so no one need get damper than they want.   See you there…

More desmids from Dock Tarn: d. Euastrum cuneatum; e. Xanthidium cristatum var. uncinatum; f. Xanthidium antilopaeum; g. Staurastrum manfeldtii var. productum.   Scale bar: 25 micrometres
( = 1/40th of a millimetre). 


Coesel, P.F.M. (1994). On the ecological significance of a cellular mucilaginous envelope in planktic desmids. Algological Studies 73: 65-74.

Kiemle, S.N., Domozych, D.S. & Gretz, M.R. (2007). The extracellular polymeric substances of desmids (Conjugatophyceae, Streptophyta): chemistry, structural analyses and implications in wetland biofilms. Phycologia 46: 617-627.

Spijkerman, E., Maberly, S.C. & Coesel, P.F.M. (2005).  Carbon acquisition mechanisms by planktonicdesmids and their link to ecological distribution. Canadian Journal of Botany 83: 850–858.


A tale of two diatoms …

I’ve been writing about the River Ehen in Cumbria since I started this blog, sharing my delight in the diversity of the microscopic world in this small river along with my frustrations in trying to understand what it is that gives this river its character.   We know that the presence of a weir at the outfall of Ennerdale Water has a big influence so, in 2015, we started to look at a nearby stream, Croasdale Beck (photographed above), which is similar in many respects but lacks the regulating influence of a lake and weir.  Maybe, we reasoned, the differences we observed would give us a better understanding of how the regulation of flow in the River Ehen influenced the ecology.

Broadly speaking, any kind of impoundment – whether a natural lake or an artificial reservoir – removes a lot of the energy from a stream that might otherwise roll stones, move sediment downstream and, in the process, dislodge the organisms that live there.   We noticed quite early in our studies, for example, that Croasdale Beck generally had less algae growing on the stones than in the nearby River Ehen, and also that the algal flora here was less diverse.

There were also some quite big differences in the algae between the two streams.  I wrote about one of the Cyanobacteria that are found in Croasdale Beck in “A bigger splash …” but there are also differences in the types of diatoms found in the two streams.  Most diatomists think about ecology primarily in terms of the chemical environment within which the diatoms live but I think that some of the differences that I see between the diatoms in the River Ehen and Croasdale Beck are a result of the different hydrological regimes in the two streams.

Several diatom species are common to both streams but two, in particular, stand out as being common in Croasdale Beck but rare in the River Ehen.  These are Achnanthes oblongella (illustrated in “Why do you look for the living amongst the dead?”) and Odontidium mesodon.  However, a closer look at the data showed that, whilst both were common in Croasdale Beck, they were rarely both common in the same sample.   If Achnanthes oblongella was abundant, then Odontidium mesodon was rare and vice versa, as the left hand graph below shows.   There were also a few situations when neither was abundant.

Odontidium mesodon from Croasdale Beck, Cumbria, July 2015.  Photographs by Lydia King.

The story got more interesting when I plotted the relative proportions of these two taxa against the amount of chlorophyll that we measured on the stones at the time of sample collection (see right hand graph below).   This gives us an idea of the total biomass of algae present at the site (which, in this particular case, are dominated by diatoms).   Achnanthes oblongella was most abundant when the biomass was very low, whilst Odontidium mesodon peaked at a slightly higher biomass, but proportions of both dropped off when the biomass was high.   I should point out that “high” in the context of Croasdale Beck is relatively low by the standards of other streams that we have examined and this adds another layer of complexity to the story.

When the biomass exceeds two micrograms per square centimetre, both Odontidium mesodon and Achnanthes oblongella are uncommon in the biomass, and the most abundant diatoms are Achnanthidum minutissimum, Fragilaria gracilis or, on one occasion, Cocconeis placentula.   A. minutissimum and F. gracilis are both common in the nearby River Ehen but C. placentula is very rarely found there.

The difference between River Ehen and Croasdale Beck is probably largely a result of the very difernt hydrological regimes, though this is an aspect of the ecology of diatoms that has been studied relatively rarely.   The differences within my Croasdale Beck samples is probably also a result of the hydrology, but reflects changes over time.   I suspect that Achnanthes oblongella is the natural “pioneer” species of soft-water, hydrologically-dynamic streams, and that Diatoma mesodon is able to over-grow A. oblongella when the biomass on stones increases due to prolonged periods of relative stability in the stream bed.  That still does not explain what happens when biomass is high and neither are abundant: the dataset is still small and we need to collect some more data to try to understand this. But the point of the post is mostly to remind everyone of the dangers of trying to interpret the ecology of attached stream algae solely in terms of their chemical environment.   And to make the point that a little more understanding of a natural system often fuels, rather than removes, the sense of mystery that is always present in nature.

a. The relationship between representation of Achnanthes oblongella and Odontidium mesodon in samples from Croasdale Beck between May 2015 and January 2017. Both axes are presented on square-root-transformed scales; b. relationship between representation of Achnanthes oblongella and Odontium mesodon and total epilithic biomass (as chlorophyll a). Lines show a locally-weighted polynomial (LOESS) regression fitted to the data.

Taxonomic note

Odontidium mesodon is the correct name for Diatoma mesodon (see “Diatoms from the Valley of Flowers”).   The name Odontidium had fallen out of popular usage, but Ingrid Jüttner and colleagues made the case to resurrect this genus for a few species that would hitherto have been classified in Diatoma.

Achnanthes oblongella, by contrast, is definitely not the correct name for this organism.  Three other names have been proposed: Karayevia oblongella, Psammothidium oblongella and Platessa oblongella.  The first two are not convincing and I have not yet been able to see the paper describing the third.  It will be interesting to see what a combined morphological and genetic study of this species (or, more likely, complex) reveals.


Jüttner, I., Williams, D.M., Levkov, Z., Falasco, E., Battegazzore, M., Cantonati, M., Van de Vijver, B., Angele, C. & Ector, L. (2015).  Reinvestigation of the type material for Odontidium hyemale (Roth) Kützing and related species, with description of four new species in the genus Odontidium (Fragilariaceae, Bacillariophyta).  Phytotaxa 234: 1-36.

Wetzel, C.E., Lange-Bertalot, H. & Ector, L. (2017): Type analysis of Achnanthes oblongella Østrup and resurrection of Achnanthes saxonica Krasske (Bacillariophyta). Nova Hedwigia Beiheft (in press).


Escape to the Howgills

Driving from my home in Durham towards the south eastern side of the Lake District or to Lancaster leads me across the A66 before I turn off and descend through the Eden Valley and Kirkby Stephen before entering the Lune valley where I join the M6, which follows the course of the Lune through the narrow gap between the high hills of the Howgills and the Winfell Ridge.  It is one of the most spectacular stretches of motorway in the country and I yearn for occasions when I do not have to rush past these hills in pursuit of deadlines.   Those chances do not come very often and, when they do, the weather is not always conducive to walking at high altitude.  However, last Friday, the gods smiled on me: the weather was perfect and I had nothing to pull me back across the Pennines and every excuse to linger.   I pulled off the M6, followed the A684 into Sedbergh and, just 15 minutes after I left the motorway, I was locking my car and following a footpath onto the fells.

There is something about the geology of the Howgills that sets them apart from the hills around them: the Lake District peaks have hard, jagged outlines whilst the Pennines reflect the tilted beds of Carboniferous limestone and sandstone.   The Howgills, however, have soft, convex outlines.  They are of Silurian sandstone though why this should give them such a different topography to the surrounding areas, I do not know.  From a distance they resemble a herd of recumbent cattle and it is no surprise that the highest peak – to which I was heading – was The Calf.

The convex form of these hills means that the first part of the walk is hard work and I had to pause at intervals to look down on s to look back at the small market town of Sedbergh below me and, beyond, the westernmost extremities of the Yorkshire Dales.   As I gained altitude, however, the slope gradually lessened and I was soon on an undulating, but gradually rising, grassy ridge heading north with just a few sheep for company.   The closely-cropped springy turf made for comfortable walking but the absence of wild flowers amidst the grass reminded me of George Monbiot’s phrase “sheep-wrecked”.   Apart from these sheep, I had the fells almost to myself, passing just half a dozen other walkers in three hours.

The summit of the calf is marked by a triangulation point, which offered the culmination of a series of outstanding views.  To the south west, I could see the northern end of Morcambe Bay glistening in the late afternoon sunlight.  Letting my eyes move northward from here, I could see the peaks of the Lake District laid out before me: Old Man of Coniston, Scafell Pike and Great Gable, Helvellyn and, in the far distance, Blencathra.  Then, continuing my panorama across the Eden Valley, I saw the sharp outline of the Pennines with, just discernible, the crenellations that marked Cross Fell, Great Dun Fell and Little Dun Fell.   Far below, I could just see the M6 snaking through the valley below, where drivers, no doubt, were gazing wistfully up at the hills just as I had done so often in the past.

Eventually, I tore myself away from the top of the Calf and followed the path back towards Sedbergh.  It was early evening as I rounded Winder, the first (or final, depending on your direction) undulation on the ridge.   Below me, I could make out activity on the fields of Sedbergh School, and could hear the distant cheers of spectators to what may have been a tug-of-war contest.   The summit of Winder is, I have been told, the turning point for the school’s cross-country run; it is a school with a ferocious reputation for sport, as I could hear.   Ironically, the town’s other claim to fame is its association with the foundation of the Quakers, the religious group whose views mostly closely align with my own.  Their founder, George Fox, preached both in the churchyard of St Andrew’s church below me, and on the nearby Firbank Fell, and the meeting house at Brigflatts, just outside the town, is the second oldest in the country.

The 12 kilometre loop took me about three hours and I was sitting in lengthening shadows outside the local fish and chip shop (the “Haddock Paddock”) sipping shandy from a can and enjoying the last of the afternoon’s sun.   And then it was back into the car for the drive across to the Eden Valley and finally onto the A66 to cross the Pennines.   It’s a tough commute.   But you shouldn’t feel too sorry for me…

The exception that proves the rule …

If you are going to understand river ecology, you need to be able to consider landscapes at several different scales simultaneously.   In the River Ehen, this means looking upstream towards Ennerdale Water and, beyond, to Great Gable and the other Lake District peaks in order to appreciate the geology that gives the catchment its bones.  But, at the same time, you need to look around at the meanders of the river and the bankside vegetation that create the immediate habitat for the organisms, and then to look even more closely at the individual stones that line the river bed.

Peering into the water last week, the pebbles, cobbles and boulders that make up the substratum of the River Ehen looked bare of filamentous algae for the most part.  There were a few clumps but, at this time of year, when grazing invertebrates are active, the algal flora is reduced to a thin film, invisible to the naked eye and apparent only as a slimy sensation when you run your fingers across the stone’s surface.   However, when I picked up a couple of cobbles, I noticed small, pale green gelatinous growths stuck on the upper surface.   Most were just a few millimetres across with the largest up to about a centimetre.

A growth of Draparnaldia glomerata on the upper surface of a cobble in the River Ehen, Cumbria, April 2017.

These growths are composed of the green alga Draparnaldia glomerata.  I have written about this alga before (see “The River Ehen in February”) but, under the microscope, it is such a beautiful organism, that I am not going to apologise for writing about it again.   The alga lives inside the gelatinous mass and consists of a relatively thick central filament from which tufts of narrower side-branches emerge.  The cells that make up these side branches gradually narrow, and the chloroplast becomes smaller until, eventually, the cells form a colourless “hair”.   These hairs are relatively short on the material illustrated below but can be much longer (some longer hairs were present but did not present nicely for photography).  The hairs are, in fact, an adaptation to help the alga acquire phosphorus, something I described in an earlier post about a relative, Stigeoclonium tenue (see “A day out in Weardale”).

Draparnaldia glomerata from the River Ehen, April 2017 showing filaments and side branches. Scale bars: a.: 50 micrometres (= 1/20th of a millimetre); b.: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).

A low concentration of phosphorus is usually regarded as a Good Thing by aquatic ecologists, as this limits the amount of energy produced  by the plants at the base of the food chain.  This, in turn, means that the microbes and animals that depend on these are not using up all the oxygen in the water, or having other deleterious influences on the ecosystem.   I would usually regard the presence of an organism such as Draparnaldia as a sign of a healthy stream, as it is adapted to thrive when phosphorus is relatively scarce.

I was, however, careful to place “relatively” in front of “scarce”.   Studies by my colleagues (referenced in the earlier post) showed that the production of the phosphatase enzyme that boosts the alga’s ability to acquire phosphorus when it is scarce is determined by the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus inside the cell itself, rather than in the water.   The physiology of nutrient limitation is all about the balance between the different “ingredients” that a cell needs.   If you have three eggs and 170g of sugar, for example, you can only make one cake, regardless of how much flour you have in your cupboard.   So it is with algae: most of the locations where I find Draparnaldia have very little nitrogen, but even less phosphorus.   There are barely enough ingredients for the algal “cake” so it is advantageous to the organism to pump out some enzyme to order to make up the shortfall.  This means that I can say with confidence that Draparnaldia is usually a good indicator of healthy streams.

Just occasionally, however, I get Draparnaldia in places where I would not usually expect it to be found.   The picture below shows a colleague standing in the Terman River, just before it flows into Lough Erne in Northern Ireland.   She is holding a skein of Cladophora glomerata in her left hand and a skein of Draparnaldia in her right hand.  I associate the former with nutrient-rich rivers where I would not usually expect to find Draparnaldia.  But both were growing prolifically at this site which defied my expectations until I started to think about the physiology of the organism.   Had I had the facilities to analyse the tissues of the algae, I expect that I would have found very high concentrations of nitrogen which, in turn, creates a demand for yet more phosphorus so that it could convert that nitrogen into the proteins it needs to grow.  However, that cannot be the whole story, because normally, under such circumstances, I would expect a competitive alga such as Cladophora to out-compete and overgrow the Draparnaldia.   Here, they were growing side-by-side.   It is, to date, the most luxuriant growth of Draparnaldia that I have seen, and also the only occasion where I have seen these two species co-existing in such abundance.

My colleague, Bernie White, holding skeins of Cladophora glomerata (left hand) and Draparnaldia glomerata (right hand) from the Terman River near Toome.  The border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK runs along the middle of this river.

I can extend my lesson from the first example to say that, to understand the ecology of any particular river you need to have perspectives obtained from many other rivers.   But, in this case, we see a potential limitation: the case of the “rare exception” that clouds an otherwise clear picture of an association between an organism and a particular set of circumstances.   The problem is particularly acute when dealing with the effect of nutrients because we are usually dealing with indirect, rather than direct effects.   Draparnaldia glomerata is usually associated with clean rivers with low concentrations of nutrients but it is not there because nutrient concentrations are low.   As for the diatom Amphora pediculus (see “The challenging ecology of a freshwater diatom?”) a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between an organism and nutrients yields more useful insights than simply assuming a cause-effect relationship.