A day out in Wasdale


A few days after my trip to Weardale I found myself beside the River Irt, a few hundred metres below the point where it flows out of Wastwater, in the western part of the Lake District.   Whereas the River Wear drains a catchment underlain by Carboniferous rocks, including a high proportion of limestone (see “Co. Durham’s secret Karst landscape”), the Irt’s catchment is largely underlain by ancient volcanic rocks, resulting in much softer water.   I was curious to see how different the algae were here compared to those in the Wear.

The river bed at this point is dominated by boulders of granite, which host a patchwork of mosses, filamentous algae and discrete growths of diatoms (visible on the right-hand side of the figure below).  Between these there were areas of pebbles and gravels, suggesting good habitat for freshwater mussels.   The patches of filamentous algae (mostly no more than a couple of centimetres in length) were a mixture of Mougeotiaand Zygnema, similar to the forms that I find in the River Ehen, a 30 minute drive to the north.   These two species differ in the form of their chloroplasts (Mougeotiahas a flat plate whilst Zygnemahas two star-shaped chloroplasts, attached by thin cytoplasmic strands to resemble an animal skin stretched on a frame) but are closely-related, both belonging to the family Zygnemtaceae.


An underwater photograph of the substratum of the River Irt in November 2018 showing patches of filamentous green algae, mosses and (on the right-hand side) diatoms growing on granite boulders.


Filamentous green algae from the River Irt, November 2018.   The upper photograph shows cells from a filament of Mougeotiawhilst the lower image shows two filaments of Zygnema. Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50thof a millimetre).

In between the tufts of filamentous algae were apparently bare patches of rock (they almost certainly had a very thin biofilm that would be hard to sample in isolation from the lusher algal growths that shared their habitat) and some conspicuous orange-brown growths of colonial diatoms.  These turned out to be almost pure growths ofGomphonema hebridense, or a close relative (I can’t give a definitive answer until I have examined cleaned material), growing on long mucilaginous, sometimes branched, stalks to create a veritable “bush” of diatoms.  There were a few other species of diatom growing within this bush, most notably some cells of Achnanthidium (cf.) caledonicumthat seemed to be growing on short stalks attached to the Gomphonemastalks, but also a few cells of Gomphonema capitatum(which also grows on long stalks) and some chains of Tabellaria flocculosa.

Gomphonema hebridenseis a diatom that I have written about several times before, as it is also common in the River Ehen, and also presents a number of interesting challenges to taxonomists (see “Diatoms and dinosaurs”). Whatever future studies reveal, however, the presence of colonies of this (or these) species that are visible with the naked eye is something I associate with only the cleanest rivers in the country during the cooler times of year.  It should not have been a great surprise to me to find it flowing out of one of the most pristine lakes in England (see “The Power of Rock …”).


A close up of cells within a colony of Gomphonemacf hebridense.  Several mucilaginous stalks are also visible as well as (top left) a cell of Achnanthidiumcf caledonicum.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 100th of a millimetre).

The predominance of boulders over smaller, more easily moved stones, suggests a river that has more energy than the River Ehen, one of my regular Lake District haunts.   Both flow out of lakes whose catchments include some of the wildest and most mountainous terrain in the country.   Lakes tend to act as shock absorbers in catchments, slowing down the water that pours off the fells after heavy rain.   Streams in this part of the world that have no such impediments to flow tend to have rocky, mobile beds and relatively sparse algal communities.   By contrast, the Irt and Ehen just below their respective lakes have relatively lush growths of algae.   The substrates of the two rivers, however, are very different: the Ehen having very few boulders in comparison to the Irt, due to the presence of a weir at the outfall. This allows Ennerdale Water to be used as a water supply for the towns of north west Cumbria but, at the same time, turns the lake into an even more effective hydrological shock absorber.  Yet more of the energy that should be washing smaller stones down the river is no longer available except after the most exceptional storms.

That’s my working hypothesis, then: the Irt is a river that is subject to just enough high energy events to move the rocky substrates around yet no so many that rich algal communities cannot develop between these.  The Ehen, by contrast, has fewer events, leading to fewer opportunities for the algae to be scoured away, whilst unregulated streams such as Croasdale Beck (see “What a difference a storm makes …”) have such regular scouring spates that the algal communities are usually sparse.   I might be wrong, of course and I might be back in a years time with a better hypothesis.  Until then …




The River Wear in November


I was back at the River Wear last week for my final visit of the year.   The heatwave that dominated the summer seems like an aeon ago as I plunged my arm into the cold water to find some stones and take some photographs.  I’m curious to see what is here, though.   The river has surprised me several times already this year.  Has it reverted to type as the British climate has regained a semblance of normality, or will the changes that we saw in the summer (see “Summertime blues …” and “Talking about the weather …”) still have consequences for the algae growing on the river bed?

The river bed itself had many patches of green filamentous algae which, on closer examination, turned out to be my old friend Ulothrix zonata, an alga that is common in these parts and which has a distinct preference for early spring conditions (see “Bollihope Bavakakra” and references therein).   A closer look showed two types of filament present: the normal vegetative ones with a single chloroplast encircling the cell but also some where the cell contents have divided to produce zoospores which are released and which, if they land on a suitable surface, will produce new vegetative filaments.   The “parent” filaments, themselves, are produced as zygotes, produced back in the spring, germinate.  The zygotes are the product of sexual reproduction, triggered by lengthening days (see reference in earlier post) and are dormant through the summer, only germinating once day length shortens and temperatures start falling.


The river bed of the River Wear at Wolsingham, November 2018, showing conspicuous growths of Ulothrix zonata.


Magnified views of Ulothrix zonatafilaments from the River Wear at Wolsingham.  The upper image shows a vegetative filament and the lower image shows filaments where the cell contents have divided up prior to the release of zoospores.  Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50thof a millimetre).

The areas between the patches of Ulothrix zonatawere covered with a thick film, composed primarily of diatoms, in contrast to the situation on my last two visits when non-filamentous green algae predominated.  This time, it was Achnanthidium minutissimumdominated my count (about 70% of cells) although, because they are relatively small, they comprised just under half of the total volume of algae present.   Other diatoms bumped this up to about 70 per cent of the total volume, with motile cells of Navicula and Nitzschia, which were so abundant at the start of the year, beginning to appear in numbers again.   The green cells that dominated my counts in July and September now only constitute about five per cent of the total.   The River Wear, in other words, has shaken off the effects of the summer, just as a healthy human gets over a winter cold, and is now back to its old self.


A view down my microscope whilst examining samples from the River Wear at Wolsingham showing the predominance of Achnanthidium minutissimum with (on the right-hand side) a filament of a narrow Ulothrix (not U. zonata).  

The Imitation Game

About a year ago, I made a dire prediction about the future of diatom taxonomy in the new molecular age (see “Murder on the barcode express …“).   A year on, I thought I would return to this topic from a different angle, using the “Turing Test” in Artificial Intelligence as a metaphor.   The Turing Test (or “Imitation Game”) was derived by Alan Turing in 1950 as a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour, indistinguishable from that of a human (encapsulated as “can machines do what we [as thinking entities] can do?”).

My primary focus over the past few years has not been the role of molecular biology in taxonomy, but rather the application of taxonomic information to decision-making by catchment managers.   So my own Imitation Game is not going to ask whether computers will ever identify microscopic algae as well as humans, but rather can they give the catchment manager the information they need to make a rational judgement about the condition of a river and the steps needed to improve or maintain that condition as well as a human biologist?

One of the points that I made in the earlier post is that current approaches based on light microscopy are already highly reductionist: a human analyst makes a list of species and their relative abundances which are processed using standardised metrics to assign a site to a status class. In theory, there is the potential for the human analysts to then add value to that assignment through their interpretations.  The extent to which that happens will vary from country to country but there two big limitations: first, our knowledge of the ecology of diatoms is meagre (see earlier post) and, in any case, diatoms represent only a small part of the total diversity of microscopic algae and protists present in any river.   That latter point, in particular, is spurring some of us to start exploring the potential of molecular methods to capture this lost information but, at the same time, we expect to encounter even larger gaps in existing taxonomic knowledge than is the case for diatoms.

One very relevant question is whether this will even be perceived as a problem by the high-ups.  There is a very steep fall-off in technical understanding as one moves up through the management tiers of environmental regulators.   That’s inevitable (see “The human ecosystem of environmental management…“) but a consequence is that their version of the Imitation Game will be played to different rules to that of the Environment Agency’s Poor Bloody Infantry whose game, in turn, will not be the same as that of academic taxonomists and ecologists.  So we’ll have to consider each of these versions separately.

Let’s start with the two extreme positions: the traditional biologist’s desire to retain a firm grip on Linnaean taxonomy versus the regulator’s desire for molecular methods to imitate (if not better) the condensed nuggets of information that are the stock-in-trade of ecological assessment.   If the former’s Imitation Game consists of using molecular methods to capture the diversity of microalgae at least as well as human specialists, then we run immediately into a new conundrum: humans are, actually, not very good at doing this, and molecular taxonomy is one of the reasons we know this to be true.  Paper after paper has shown us the limitations of taxonomic concepts developed during the era of morphology-based taxonomy.  In the case of diatoms we are now in the relatively healthy position of a synergy between molecular and morphological taxonomy but the outcomes usually indicate far more diversity than we are likely to be able to catalogue using formal Linnaean taxonomy to make this a plausible option in the short to medium-term.

If we play to a set of views that is interested primarily in the end-product, and is less interested in how this is achieved, then it is possible that taxonomy-free approaches such as those advocated by Jan Pawlowski and colleagues, would be as effective as methods that use traditional taxonomy.   As no particular expertise is required to collect a phytobenthos sample, and the molecular and computing skills required are generic rather than specific to microalgae, the entire process could by-pass anyone with specialist understanding altogether.  The big advantages are that it overcomes the limitations of a dependence on libraries of barcodes of known species and, as a result, that it does not need to be limited to particular algal groups.  It also has the greatest potential to be streamlined and, so, is likely to be the cheapest way to generate usable information.   However, two big assumptions are built into this version of the Imitation Game: first, there is absolutely no added value from knowing what species are present in a sample and, second, that it is, actually, legal. The second point relates to the requirement in the Water Framework Directive to assess “taxonomic composition” so we also need to ask whether a list of “operational taxonomic units” (OTUs) meets this requirement.

In between these two extremes, we have a range of options whereby there is some attempt to align molecular barcode data with taxonomy, but stopping short of trying to catalogue every species present.  Maybe the OTUs are aggregated to division, class, order or family rather than to genus or species?   That should be enough to give some insights into the structure of the microbial world (and be enough to stay legal!) and would also bring some advantages. Several of my posts from this summer have been about the strange behavior of rivers during a heatwave and, having commented on the prominence and diversity of green algae during this period, it would be foolish to ignore a method that would pick up fluctuations between algal groups better than our present methods.   On the other hand, I’m concerned that an approach that only requires a match to a high-level taxonomic group will enable bioinformaticians and statisticians to go fishing for correlations with environmental variables without needing a strong conceptual behind their explorations.

My final version of the Imitation Game is the one played by the biologists in the laboratories around the country who are simultaneously generating the data used for national assessments and providing guidance on specific problems in their own local areas.   Molecular techniques may be able to generate the data but can it explain the consequences?  Let’s assume that method in the near future aggregates algal barcodes into broad groups – greens, blue-greens, diatoms and so on, and that some metrics derived from these offer correlations with environmental pressures as strong or stronger than those that are currently obtained.   The green algae are instructive in this regard: they encompass an enormous range of diversity from microscopic single cells such as Chlamydomonas and Ankistrodesmus through colonial forms (Pediastrum) and filaments, up to large thalli such as Ulva.   Even amongst the filamentous forms, some are signs of a healthy river whilst others can be a nuisance, smothering the stream bed with knock-on consequences for other organisms.   A biologist, surely, wants to know whether the OTUs represent single cells or filaments, and that will require discrimination of orders at least but in some cases this level of taxonomic detail will not be enough.   The net alga, Hydrodictyon(discussed in my previous post) is in the same family as Pediastrumso we will need to be able to discriminate separate genera in this case to offer the same level of insight as a traditional biologist can provide.   We’ll also need to discriminate blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) at least to order if we want to know whether we are dealing with forms that are capable of nitrogen fixation – a key attribute for anyone offering guidance on their management.

The primary practical role of Linnaean taxonomy, for an ecologist, is to organize data about the organisms present at a site and to create links to accumulated knowledge about the taxa present.    For many species of microscopic algae, as I stressed in “Murder on the barcode express …”, that accumulated knowledge does not amount to very much; but there are exceptions.  There are 8790 records on Google Scholar for Cladophora glomerata, for example, and 2160 for Hydrodictyon reticulatum.  That’s a lot of wisdom to ignore, especially for someone who has to answer the “so what” questions that follow any preliminary assessment of the taxa present at a site.  But, equally, there is a lot that we don’t know and molecular methods might well help us to understand this.   There will be both gains and losses as we move into this new era but, somehow, blithely casting aside hard-won knowledge seems to be a retrograde step.

Let’s end on a subversive note: I started out by asking whether “machines” (as a shorthand for molecular technology) can do the same as humans but the drive for efficiency over the last decade has seen a “production line” ethos creeping into ecological assessment.   In the UK this has been particularly noticeable since about 2010, when public sector finances were squeezed.   From that point on, the “value added” elements of informed biologists interpreting data from catchments they knew intimately started to be eroded away.   I’ve described three versions of the Imitation Game and suggested three different outcomes.  The reality is that the winners and losers will depend upon who makes the rules.  It brings me back to another point that I have made before (see “Ecology’s Brave New World …”): that problems will arise not because molecular technologies are being used in ecology, but due to how they are used.   It is, in the final analysis, a question about the structure and values of the organisations involved.


Apothéloz-Perret-Gentil, L., Cordonier, A., Straub, F., Iseili, J., Esling, P. & Pawlowksi, J. (2017).  Taxonomy-free molecular diatom index for high-throughput eDNA monitoring.   Molecular Ecology Resources17: 1231-1242.

Turing, A. (1950).  Computing machinery and intelligence.  Mind59: 433-460.

Notes from the Serra de Estrela

At the end of my last post I suggested that the next time I wrote it may be from Portugal.   In reality, tiredness and, to be frank, a steady consumption of Vino Verde intervened and this post may be about Portugal but is not, alas, written from that country.   Our travels took us from Lisbon northwards to Covilhã, a town on the edge of the Serra da Estrela mountain range, then onwards to the Duoro valley and Porto, and finally back to Lisbon.   The lower part of the Duoro is the home to many of the Vino Verde vineyards, although our focus was mostly on the vineyards further upstream from which the grapes for port are grown.  I’ll write more about the Duoro in a later post but, first, I want to take you on a journey to the Serra da Estrela.

These are the highest mountains in mainland Portugal (there is a higher point in the Azores) but summit with a summit at 1993 metres at Torre.  Unusually, for the highest peak in a mountain range, there is a road all the way to the top, along with a couple of shops and a small bar/restaurant.   On the day we visited, a couple of hardy cyclists had toiled their way up from the plains but most of the visitors had driven up.   We had stopped on our route up from Covilhã to explore the granite landscape and botanise so felt that we had earned our bica and Pastéis de Nata by the time we got to the very top.

Much as I appreciate a summit that satisfies a caffeine addiction, the real interest lies elsewhere, with the road up from Covilhã passing through some dramatically-eroded granite outcrops, composed of huge boulders apparently perched precariously on top of each other.  These resemble the granite “tors” we find in Dartmoor in south-west England, and have a similar origin.   The area around the tors had distinctive vegetation that will, no doubt, be described in greater length in a post on Heather’s blog before too long.   The free-draining sandy soils that the granite landscape creates mean that there was not a lot of surface water for me to indulge my own passions, so I will have to take you to another part of the Serra da Estrela for the remainder of this post.

Granite landscapes near Torre in the Serra da Estrela Natural Park in northern Portugal, September 2018.  

We found an inviting stream as we were walking near Unhais de Serra, at the southern end of the Natural Park.  The first plants to catch our eye were a submerged Ranunculus species with finely-divided leaves and five-petelled white flowers sitting at the water surface.   As well as these, we could see shoots of patches of water dropwort (Oenanthe sp.) and, looking more closely, several of these appeared to be growing out of dark coloured patches which turned out to be a submerged moss overgrown with algae (more about which a little later).   I am guessing that, once the rains come, much of these mini-ecosystems will be washed downstream leaving just a few moss stems to be colonised again next year.

Submerged vegetation in the stream at Unhais de Serra in September 2018 (40°15’44” N 7°37’21” W).  The top photograph shows a Ranunculus species and the lower photograph shows mosses overgrown with algae (a mixture of Cyanobacterial filaments, diatoms and coccoid green algae), within which young plants of Oenanthe sp. have taken root (top photograph: Heather Kelly).

Somewhat to my surprise there were also some patches of Lemanea.   This is a red algal genus that I usually associate with late winter and spring in my own part of the world, so I had not expected to find such prolific growths at this time of year at lower latitudes.   Maybe Iberian species of Lemanea behave differently to those with which I am familiar?

The Lemanea species found in the stream at Unhais de Serra in September 2018.  The top photograph shows it growing in situ and the lower photograph is a close-up.  The filaments are about a millimetre wide.

The dark film itself contained a variety of algae, some of which I have put in a plate below.   There were some cyanobacterial filaments which looked like Oscillatoria to me but which were not moving (their life between collection and examination was less than ideal).  There were also a large number of diatoms, mostly Navicula and Surirella.  Again, both would have been moving around in a healthy sample but were static when I got around to examining them; the chloroplasts in the Surirella, in particular, were not in very good condition).  I also saw some chains of Fragilaria species and several small green algae (especially Monoraphidium, discussed in the previous post).  I’ll return to the diatoms in a future post, once I have been able to get permanent slides prepared and examined but first impression is that I am looking at a community from a low nutrient, circumneutral environment.

Some of the algae living in the dark films overgrowing mosses in the stream at Unhais de Serra in September 2018.   a. – c.: Navicula angusta; d. –g. Surirella cf. roba; h. – i. two different chain-forming Fragilaria sp.; j. – k.: Navicula cf cryptocephala; l. – m.: Oscillatoria sp.    Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre). 

The diatoms, in particular, reiterate the important point that notwithstanding the huge number of new species that have been described in recent years, it is possible to peer through a microscope at a sample from anywhere in Europe and see a familiar set of outlines that, for the most part, give a consistent interpretation of environmental conditions wherever you are (see, for example, “Lago di Maggiore under the microscope”).   That same rationale applies, to some extent to other organism groups too: we have recently shown this for macrophytes in shallow lakes for example.   Likewise, the geology here was shaped by the same broad forces that created the landscape of south-west England even if local climate means that the flora surrounding the tors in the Serra da Estrela is adapted to more arid conditions than that on Dartmoor.    It is important that, when we travel, we see the differences but, perhaps even more important in this fractured age, that we see the similarities too.


Chapuis, I.S., Sánchez-Castillo, P.M. & Aboal Sanchero, M. (2014).  Checklist of freshwater red algae in the Iberian Penisula and the Balearic Islands.   Nova Hedwigia 98: 213-232.

Poikane, S., Portielje, R., Deny, L., Elferts, D., Kelly, M., Kolada, A., Mäemets, H., Phillips, G., Søndergaard, M., Willby, N. & van den Berg, M. (2018).   Macrophyte assessment in European lakes: Diverse approaches but convergent views of ‘good’ ecological status.  Ecological Indicators 94: 185-197.

Talking about the weather …

September is here.  When I visited this site two months ago we were in the midst of the heatwave and the samples I collected from the Wear at Wolsingham were different to any that I have seen at this location before, dominated by small green algae (see “Summertime blues …”).   As I drove to Wolsingham this time, I could see the first signs of autumn in the trees and the temperatures are more typical of this time of year.   We have had rain, but there has not been a significant spate since April and this means that there has been nothing to scour away these unusual growths and return the river to its more typical state.

That does not mean, however, that there have been no changes in the algae on the submerged stones.  Some of these differences are apparent as soon as I pick up a stone.  Last month, there was a thin crust on the surface of the stones; that is still here but now there are short algal filaments pushing through, and the whole crust seems to be, if anything, more consolidated than in July, and I can see sand grains amidst the filaments.   Biofilms in healthy rivers at this time of year are usually thin, due to intense grazing by invertebrates, so I’m curious to know what is going on here this year.

A cobble from the River Wear at Wolsingham, showing the thick biofilm interspersed with short green filaments.   Note, too, the many sand grains embedded in the biofilm.  The bare patch at the centre was created when I pulled my finger through it to show how consolidated it had become.  The cobble is about 20 centimetres across.

Many of the organisms that I can see when I peer at a drop of my sample through my microscope are the same as those I saw back in July but there are some conspicuous differences too.   There are, for example, more desmids, some of which are, by the standards of the other algae in the sample, enormous.   We normally associate desmids with soft water, acid habitats but there are enough in this sample to suggest they are more than ephemeral visitors.   And, once I had named them, I saw that the scant ecological notes that accompanied the descriptions referred to preferences for neutral and alkaline, as well as nutrient-rich conditions.  Even if I have not seen these species here before, others have seen them in similar habitats, and that offers me some reassurance.    In addition to the desmids, there were also more coenobia of Pediastrum boryanum and Coelastrum microporum compared to the July sample.

A view of the biofilm from the River Wear at Wolsingham on 1 September 2019. 

There were also more diatoms present than in my samples from July – up from about 13 percent of the total in July to just over 40 per cent in September.   The most abundant species was Achnanthidium minutissimum, but the zig-zag chains of Diatoma vulgare were conspicuous too.  The green filaments turned out to be a species of Oedogonium, not only a different species to the one I described in my previous post but also with a different epiphyte: Cocconeis pediculus this time, rather than Achnanthidium minutissimum.   I explained the problems associated with identifying Oedogonium in the previous post but, even though I cannot name the species, I have seen this form before (robust filaments, cells 1.5 to 2 times as long as broad) and associate it with relatively nutrient-rich conditions.  That would not normally be my interpretation of the Wear at Wolsingham but this year, as I have already said, confounds our expectations.   I did not record any Cladophora in this sample but am sure that, had I mooched around for longer in the pools at the side of the main channel, I would have found some filaments of this species too.

Desmids and other green algae from the River Wear at Wolsingham, 1 September 2019.  a. Closterium cf. acerosum; b. Closteriumcf. moniliferum; c. Cosmarium cf. botrysis; d. Closterium cf. ehrenbergii; e. Coelastrum microporum; f. Pediastrum boryanum.   Scale bar: 50 micrometres (= 1/20th of a millimetre).  

It is not just the differences between months this year that I’m curious about.  I did a similar survey back in 2009 and, looking back at those data, I see that my samples from August and September in that year had a very different composition.   There was, I remember, a large spate in late July or early August, and my August sample, collected a couple of weeks later had surprised me by having a thick biofilm dominated by the small motile diatom Nitzschia archibaldii.   My hypothesis then was that the spate had washed away many of the small invertebrates that grazed on the algae, meaning that there were few left to feed on those algae that survived the storm (or which had recolonised in the aftermath)..   As the algae divided and re-divided, so they started to compete for light, handing an advantage to those that could adjust their position within the biofilm.   This dominance by motile diatoms was, in my experience of the upper Wear, as uncommon as the assemblages I’m encountering this summer, though probably for different reasons.

Other algae from the River Wear at Wolsingham, September 2018.    The upper image shows Diatoma vulgare and the lower image is Oedogonium with epiphytic Cocconeis pediculus.   Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).

I suspect that it is the combination of high temperatures and low flows (more specifically, the absence of spates that might scour away the attached algae) that is responsible for the present state of the river.  This, along with my theory behind the explosion of Nitzschia archibaldii in August 2009, both highlight the importance of weather and climate in generating some of the variability that we see in algal communities in rivers (see “How green is my river?”).   The British have a reputation for talking about the weather.   I always scan the weather forecasts in the days leading up to a field trip, mostly to plan my attire and make sure that I will, actually, be able to wade into the river.  Perhaps I also need to spend more time thinking about what this weather will be doing to the algae I’m about to sample.

A hitchhiker’s guide to algae …

One of the recurring themes of this blog is the hidden delights of natural history for anyone prepared to take a closer look at unprepossessing locations, so it is appropriate that we have found some quite rich habitats within walking distance of our home in County Durham.   I’ve written before about visits to Crowtrees, a local nature reserve (see “More pleasures in my own backyard” and “Natural lenses”) and Heather is also writing a series of posts about the ever-changing flora of this small vale at the foot of the Permian limestone escarpment (see “Crowtrees LNR July 2018 part 2: gentians to grasses” for the most recent and links back to previous ones).   I visited again last week, taking Brian Whitton along for company.

His interest was the red alga Chroothece ricteriana, which I described in one of my earlier posts about Crowtrees but we did not find it on this particular visit.   Instead, my eye was drawn to soft clouds of green filaments that floated just above the bed of the pond.   When I looked closely under my microscope, I saw that these were thin filaments of Oedogonium.  Typically, these had no reproductive organs, so cannot be named (see “Love and sex in a tufa-forming stream” for a rare exception), but all showed characteristic “cap cells” (see lower illustration).

Growths of Oedogonium in Crowtrees pond, August 2018.   The frame width is about 30 centimetres.   The photograph at the top of the post shows Brian Whitton searching for algae during our visit.

The diatom Achnanthidium minutissimum was growing on small stalks attached to the Oedogonium filaments, often alone but also in pairs and stacks of four, as the diatom cells divided and re-divided.  Oedogonium is a rougher alga to the touch than filamentous genera such as Draparnaldia, Stigeoclonium and Spirogyra, and often carries epiphytes, and I presume the lack of mucilage is a factor in this.   Achnanthidium minutissimum is a diatom that is very common on the upper surface of submerged stones in both lakes and rivers, but it is not fussy and I often see it as an epiphyte if conditions are right.  In this case, I suspect that the very hard water of Crowtrees Pond is a factor: calcium carbonate is constantly being precipitated from the water to create a thin layer of “marl” (see photo in “Pleasures in my own backyard”).   This makes life difficult for a tiny diatom that cannot move, so hitch-hiking a ride on the back of a filamentous alga that floats about the lake bottom makes a lot more sense.

Oedogonium filaments with epiphytic Achnanthidium minutissimum, from Crowtrees pond, August 2018.  Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).  

Oedogonium is an adaptable genus.  It is also common in the River Ehen (soft water, low nutrients) and I also find it in lowland polluted rivers too.  Being able to name the species would, I am sure, help us to better understand the ecology but this is, as I have already mentioned, problematic (see “The perplexing case of the celibate alga”).   However, in each of the cases I’ve mentioned, the epiphytes are different (Achnanthidium minutissimum here, Tabellaria flocculosa and Fragilaria species in the Ehen, Rhoicosphenia and Cocconeis placentula in enriched lowland rivers) and I suspect that these might offer an easier way to interpret the habitat than the filaments themselves, at least until someone finds a stress-free way of naming them.

Comparing algae on a summer’s day …

I wrote about the effect of the long period of low flow in the River Wear a few weeks ago (see “Summertime Blues …”) and have, now, completed two dioramas depicting the state of the river in the main channel and in a filamentous algae-dominated backwater.  The first of these is dominated by free-living green algae, either single cells or coenobia (see note at end), which is a big contrast to the situation I recorded two months earlier when the assemblage was dominated by diatoms, with patches of filamentous green algae (see “Spring comes slowly up this way” and “A question of scale”).

I sent a small sample of the Wolsingham biofilm to Dave John for his opinion on the green algae, and he sent back a list with twenty one different green algae that he had found.  Fortunately, this confirmed my own original list, with Keratococcus bicaudatus, Scenedesmus, Desmodesmus and Monoraphidium all featuring.   He also commented that Keratococcus is hard to differentiate from Chlorolobium (which is also in his list) and that most of the green alga on his list are usually considered to be planktonic (Keratococcus and Chlorolobium are exceptions) although, as my earlier post suggested, these definitely formed a distinct biofilm on the surface of stones this year in the River Wear.

A diorama showing the biofilm in the River Wear at Woslingham, July 2018.   You can see coenobia of Demodesmuss communis (centre), Scenedesmus sp. (left) and Coelastrum microporum (right – half tucked behind a mineral particle, along with single cells of Keratococcus bicaudatus (upright cells) and Monoraphidium.  There are also some cells of Achnanthidium minutissimum on short stalks in the foreground and a cluster of Fragilaria gracilis cells in the background.

There seems to be little hard evidence on the habit of Keratococcus and Chlorobium apart from references to a preference for benthic habitats.   I have drawn them as upright cells, drawing on their similarity in form to Characium, for which there is better evidence of an upright habit (although Characium tends to grow on other algae, rather than on hard surfaces).  Whereas I often have a strong sense of the three dimensional arrangement of organisms within benthic biofilms, so little has been written about the preferences of these green algae that, apart from the Keratococcus, I have had to show them as a jumble of cells and coenobia across the picture frame.

The second diorama depicts the tangle of filamentous green algae that I found in the pools beside the main channel.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, these are species that I do not normally find at this site and are here, I presume, due to the long period of unusually warm weather and low flows.   One difference between these communities and that captured in my first diorama is that there is a more obvious organisation of the constituents here: the Cladophora filaments, though appearing as a tangle to us, form the foundation upon which epiphytes grow directly, but also around which Melosira filaments are entangled, rather like the lianas in a tropical rain forest.   The quantity of diatoms around the Cladophora is so great that their brown pigments completely mask the Cladophora’s green cells but note how the density of Cocconeis cells reduces towards the tips – the youngest parts of the filaments.

Depiction of filamentous algae growing in the margins of the River Wear at Wolsingham in July 2018, showing epiphytic Cocconeis pediculus and entangled Melosira varians.

There have been some recurring themes in my posts this summer: one is that UK rivers have been behaving quite differently to previous years, due to a combination of low flows (more accurately, a lack of the scour associated with high flows) and warm, well-lit conditions.   The low flows have also resulted, to some extent, in rivers becoming more physically heterogeneous, with side-pools and silty areas developing distinct assemblages of algae quite different to those encountered in the main channel.   Sometimes, the sum of these effects is for rivers to look less healthy than is usually the case.

The Wear at Wolsingham is one of those sites that I like to think I know well, having visited the location so many times over the past 30 years.  It is reassuring, in a rather humbling way, to know that it still has the capacity to surprise me.

Dave’s list of green algae from the Wolsingham biofilm, July 2018

Closterium moniliferum
Closterium acerosum
Cosmarium botrytis
Cosmarium venustum
Staurastrum striatum

‘Chlorococcalean’ algae
Acutodesmus dimorphus
Coelastrum astroideum
(very small and atypical)
Coelastrum microporum (very small and atypical)
Chlorolobion braunii
Desmococcus olivaceum (subaerial species)
Desmodesmus communis
Desmodesmus subspicatus
Keratococcus bicaudatus

Monoraphidium arcuatum
Monoraphidium contortum
Monoraphidium griffithsia
Monoraphidium irregulare
Scenedesmus arcuatus
Pseudopediastrum boryanum
Tetradesmus obliquus
Tetraedron minimum


A coenobium is a colony in which the cell number is fixed at the time of formation and not augmented subsequently.   Coenobia are particularly common in the Chlorococcalees.