A hidden world in a salty puddle …

An exchange of emails amongst a group of us preparing an obituary for Hilary Belcher led me to a short paper written by herself and Erica Swale on diatoms from a salty puddle close to a bridge under the M11 motorway in Cambridgeshire.  They had noticed some brown patches that looked like diatoms on the bottom of this puddle in 1979 and took a sample home to examine under the microscope. What they saw was an assemblage of diatoms that was more suggestive of a brackish habitat than freshwaters, leading them to conclude that the road salt that was spread on the M11 in winter was draining off the road and creating these mini salt lakes.  These were not one-off observations: they returned several times to find similar assemblages of diatoms in the same puddles.   Of these, only Surirella brebissonii is common in freshwaters.  Entomoneis and Cylindrotheca are two genera that I have written about before, both from marine or brackish habitats (see “A typical Geordie alga …” and “Back to Druridge Bay”).

Some diatoms associated with a puddle close to the M11 in Cambridgeshire: A: Entomoneis paludosa var. salinarum; B: Surirella brebissonii; C: Tryblionella hungarica; D: Nitzschia sigma; E: Nitzschia vitrea; F: Cylindrotheca closterium; G: C. gracilis.  From Belcher and Swale (1993).

I do occasionally find diatoms from marine habitats in rivers, and often suspect road salt to be the culprit.  One of the most extreme cases I encountered was a sample from the Ingrebourne, a small stream close to my childhood home where Bacillaria paxillifer constituted a third of all the diatoms present.  Bacillaria paxillifer is an intriguing diatom (see “The paradox that is Bacillaria” and links) but one that is very definitely a species that prefers saline rather than fresh water.  The Ingrebourne passes under the M25 motorway within about a kilometre of its source and crosses the busy A12 trunk road just upstream of the sampling location, so periodic pulses of salt are a possibility.

The ephemeral nature of these events, however, make them hard to prove and we are left with scattered notes such as this one in a small natural history journal.   These journals are, in many cases, struggling to survive in the modern age and I guess blogs such as this are taking over from them as records of botanical observations that are not structured in a way that makes publication in a mainstream scientific journal a possibility.  Hilary Belcher and Erica Swale made a number of substantial contributions to algal research over the course of their careers, but they were also consummate observers and recorders of their local environment – the wellspring from which an understanding of the natural world ultimately flows.

I am thankful to Hilary in one other way: she and her partner Erica Swale wrote a small (47 page) booklet with clear line drawings of the most common freshwater algae that was a required purchase for all undergraduates (and demonstrators) attending Brian Whitton’s algae practicals at Durham and it was through this book that I started to learn how to identify algae.  There are, I notice, just 17 genera of diatoms illustrated in this book but there was enough here to start putting names onto the shapes that floated – or flitted – through my field of view as I struggled to learn the rudiments of the craft.

Left: Hilary Belcher on a sampling trip to the Thames in the early 1990s (photo: Alison Love) and, right: the cover of her introductory guide to freshwater algae, co-authored with Erica Swale.

Reference

Belcher, H. & Swale, E. (1993).  Some diatoms of a small saline habitat near Cambridge.  Nature Cambridgeshire 35: 75-77.

A full appreciation of the life and work of Hilary Belcher, compiled by Jenny Bryant, will appear in the next edition of The Phycologist.

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Unlikely neighbours …

One of the lessons I learned from writing “A tale of two diatoms …” is that we can often learn more about the ecology of a species by contrasting its behaviour with that of another species rather than by just relating the distribution of that species to features of its environment.  I came across another example of this when I was writing up the results of the latest “ring-test” that UK diatom analysts undertake to maintain their competence.

The sample came from a stream in east Devon (the one that had a walk-on part in “The challenging ecology of a freshwater diatom”).  This stream receives effluent from a small sewage works but our sample comes from just upstream of this works.   We know that the stream downstream of the sewage works is quite polluted but were also interested in the condition of the stream above the works.   This has proved to be challenging and, it seems, there are some pollution sources, including septic tanks and runoff from fields, that mean that the stream already shows signs of impact before it reaches the sewage works.   There are, however, mixed messages when we look at the aquatic flora, and some of the diatoms that are abundant are characteristic of low or only slight enrichment.

One feature of the stream that was quite unusual was a relatively large number of cells of Reimeria uniseriata, a relative of Reimeria sinuata which is quite common.  Both of these are illustrated below: note that R. uniseriata tends to be slightly larger and has distinctly punctate striae.  However, when I looked at the distribution of these species in response to water chemistry, I could see few differences, with most of the records suggesting a preference for water with low or slightly elevated phosphorus concentrations.   Reimeria sinuata is more common than R. uniseriata and when the latter is found, the former is usually present too.  They seem to be able to share their habitat quite comfortably.

Reimeria sinuata from Polly Brook, Devon, December 2016.   a. – f.: valve views; g.: girdle view focussed on ventral side.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of millimetre).  Photos: Lydia King.

Reimeria uniseriata from Polly Brook, December 2016.  h., i.: valve views; j.: girdle view focussed on dorsal side; k., l.: girdle views focussed on ventral side.   Scale bar: 10 µm (= 1/100th of millimetre).  Photos: Lydia King.

In other words, we cannot learn very much from looking at differences in the distribution of these two species of Reimeria, given our current state of knowledge.  There is, however, one other “compare and contrast” within the data that I collected from Polly Brook that is more intriguing.   If Reimeria sinuata, in particular, usually indicates a healthy stream, possibly with a little nutrient enrichment, Rhoicosphenia abbreviata is more often associated with enriched conditions.   We have met this diatom before (see “Cladophora and friends” amongst other posts) and I have explained that it is often found growing as an epiphyte on other algae.  We rarely see situations where both species are abundant at the same time, as the graph below shows.

The relative distribution of Reimeria sinuata and Rhoicosphenia abbreviata in the 6500 UK stream and river samples in the DARES dataset.   The horizontal and vertical lines indicate 10% relative abundance of each species.

When I started looking at stream algae there was a prevailing assumption that there were strong causal relationships between the species of diatom that were found at a site and the level of chemical pressures.  In the case of phosphorus, in particular, I am now not convinced that the evidence supports this whilst, at the same time, am more convinced that we should be able to, at the very least, describe what a healthy stream algal community looks like and give reasons.  I use the word “describe” because I think that many of us have been preoccupied with counting and measuring, often at the expense of a qualitative understanding.  These two species illustrate my point as when I look down a microscope and see Reimeria sinuata, I can usually assume that the stream where it was growing was reasonably healthy, even if the nutrients are a little higher than would be ideal.  On the other hand, seeing lots of cells of Rhoicosphenia makes me suspect that there has been a breakdown in the functioning of the healthy community.  These conclusions would be irrespective of what the chemistry or the values that biological indices told me.

Two species is barely enough to base a credible assessment upon but we could stir more into the mix: I often find Reimeria sinuata with Achnanthidium minutissimum, and that, in in summer especially, suggests strong top-down control by grazers, which means that pathways of energy flow have not been disrupted.   And Rhoicosphenia, as I have already mentioned, is associated with Cladophora which, in abundance, suggests a breakdown in these pathways, as shown by Michael Sturt and colleagues from University College, Cork, a few years ago.   That Polly Brook has both Reimeria and Rhoicosphenia in abundance suggests that it might just be at the tipping point between these two states.

The naïve answer to making sure that the upper stretches of Polly Brook do not cross this threshold would be to manage the nutrients.  However that is not quite as easy as it sounds in an agricultural catchment.   It could be that managing other aspects of the riparian environment are equally effective at keeping the stream in a healthy condition but that takes us into areas where the evidence is still accumulating.  It could be that the simplistic determinism that drove much of the development of biological assessment methods actually held back the gathering of that evidence for a long time.  Reimeria sinuata – and it’s cousin, R. uniseriata – stand as two reminders that there is more to the management of aquatic ecosystems than strong correlations.

Reference

Sturt, M.M., Jansen, M.A.K. & Harrison, S.A.C. (2011).  Invertebrate grazing and riparian shade as controllers of nuisance algae in a eutrophic river.  Freshwater Biology 56: 2580-2593.

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.

Reference

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).

 

Theme and variations

Following our visit to the cities of the Silk Road (see “Daniel and his den of diatoms …”) in April we turned our eyes in the opposite direction and, within an hour of leaving Tashkent, we had left the flat plains behind and climbing into the foothills of the Tien’shan mountains.   The intensive agriculture of the lowlands gave way to pine forests and, as the road started to twist and turn up the slopes, we started to get tantalising glimpses of the snow-capped mountains which straddle Uzbekistan’s eastern border with Krygyzstan.

As ever, I looked for opportunities to combine business and pleasure, collecting one sample from a small calcareous seepage in the hills near the village of So’qoq and another from a stream running through mixed geology near the village of Kumyshkang, where we were staying in a Soviet-era dacha.   Sampling the seepage drew some curious looks from two women who were collecting water mint from further downstream, and yielded an almost pure growth of a diatom that is either Achnanthidium pyrenaicum or a close relative.   This would have been, by the way, the diatom that I would have expected to find were I to sample a remote, unpolluted calcareous stream in the UK.

Achnanthidium cf pyrenaicum from a calcareous stream near So’qoq in eastern Uzbekistan (41°18’45.6” N 69 ° 51’40” E).  a. – d.: rapheless valves; e. – g.: raphe valves; h.: girdle view.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).

Later in the day, we explored a side valley of an unnamed river that flows through the village of Kumyshkang.  The steep landscape on the south side of the valley had a thin cover of scrubby vegetation (in contrast to the wooded slopes on the other side) and the stream tumbled off the hillside towards the river below.  The biofilm, partly as a result of this harsh environment and partly, I suspect, due to grazing by invertebrates, was very thin but, nonetheless, quite diverse, with Achnanthidium minutissimum predominating.  There were a lot of outcrops of pink granite in the hillsides around the stream, but there were other rocks too, including shales and slates.   The flora here, as a So’qoq, would not look out of place in samples I find in the UK although the mix of taxa is not what I would expect if granite was the predominant rock in the catchment.   I travel light, without meters to check the chemical composition of the water, so there is no way to confirm this.  Except by going back one day better prepared …

Diatoms from a stream near Kumyshkang, Uzbekistan (41°18’45.6” N 69 ° 51’40” E, approx. 1400 m above sea level).  .   i.: Ulnaria ulna; j. – l.: Achnanthidium minutissimum; m.: A. cf. pyrenaicum; n., o.: A. cf caledonicum; p.: Achnanthidium girdle view; q.: Navicula tripunctata; r. Navicula sp.; s. Gomphonema gracile; t. Gomphonema sp.; u. Surirella brebissonii var. kutzingii; v. Diatoma moniliformis; w. Nitzschia sp.; x. Planothidium lanceolatum; y. Reimeria sinuata; z.: Encyonema ventricosum; aa.: Encyonopsis sp.   Scale bar 10 micrometres (= 100th of a millimetre).

I should add a caution about names applied to Asian diatoms using identification literature written for European freshwaters, especially after my comments in “Back to the Himalayas …”.   Until the 1980s there was a widespread belief that diatom species were cosmopolitan and could be found all around the world.  This belief became self-fulfilling as, armed with this assumption, biologists set out with books written by and for Europeans and blithely applied the names to the diatoms that they found.  From the 1980s, however, papers started to appear in which people took a closer look at variation in some of these apparently cosmopolitan species and argued that there were, in fact, substantial differences between forms from different locations, and that there were, in fact, much greater numbers of diatoms than previously thought, and that many of these were restricted to particular geographic regions.   But then, in 2002 Bland Finlay and colleagues challenged this emerging view by arguing that it was not diatoms that were restricted in their distributions, it was the locations where these detailed studies had been performed that were rare.   In other words, given enough time and effort on the part of diatomists, we should expect to see these so-called endemic species cropping up in samples from all over the world.

This created a brouhaha within the diatom world which resulted in some further papers that questioned Finlay’s assertions and argued from theoretical grounds that there was no reason why diatoms should not be restricted to a limited geographical area.  As the new century progressed, diatomists added molecular barcoding to their armouries and this offered partial support for both positions: some diatoms – or at least some strains of some diatoms, Nitzschia palea and Gomphonema parvulum, for example – do appear to be genuinely cosmopolitan whilst others do not.  Of course, Finlay and colleagues always hold the trump card in this respect: it is not possible to disprove the existence of any so-called endemic species elsewhere in the biosphere until every conceivable habitat has been examined. But a truce, of sorts, does seem to be emerging.

Sampling the calcareous seepage near So’qoq, April 2017.  The picture at the top of the post shows the valley upstream of Kumyshkang.

The truth may well lie between the two extreme positions.  Maybe many diatoms really are widely distributed because random dispersal mechanisms for microscopic organisms are highly effective, as Finlay and colleagues argue.  But every time a few viable cells of a diatom species land on a suitable habitat, their small pool of genetic variability will either thrive or disappear.   When they thrive, the story of Darwin’s finches will be replayed and a combination of genetic drift and selective pressures will create variations on the original theme, just waiting for an observant biologist to come along and discover the new species.

The question that intrigues me is whether or not the bugs that crawl across the submerged stones in search of food ever notice the difference.   One of my perennial bugbears is that the careful taxonomic work that has resulted in the discovery of all this diversity within diatoms is rarely accompanied by ecological analyses of similar rigour.   In particular, do these different forms of what we once regarded as “cosmopolitan” species actually have any effect on how energy flows through the ecosystem?  Do they, in other words, taste different to the invertebrates that crawl across the stones in search of food?  Or, as Bland Finlay hinted in a subsequent review article, are these different genotypes, in effect, variations on the same basic “ecotype”?   In which case, a casual observer crouching beside a foreign stream may not know the precise name of every species he encounters but still may have a pretty good idea of how these fit into the bigger picture of aquatic diversity.

References

Finlay, B.J. (2002). Global Dispersal of Free-Living Microbial Eukaryote Species.  Science (New York) 296: 1061-1063.

Finlay, B.J. (2004). Protist taxonomy: an ecological perspective.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Series B 359: 599-610.

Finlay, B.J., Monaghan, E.B. & Maberly, S.C. (2002). Hypothesis: the rate and scale of dispersal of freshwater diatom species is a function of their global abundance. Protist 153: 261-273.

Kemmarec, L., Bouchez, A., Rimet, F. & Humbert, J.-F. (2013). First evidence of the Existence of Semi-Cryptic Species and of a phylogeographic structure in the Gomphonema parvulum (Kützing) Kützing complex (Bacillariophyta). Protist 164: 686-705.

Mann, D.G. & Droop, S.J.M. (1996).  Biodiversity, biogeography and conservation of diatoms.  Hydrobiologia 336: 19-32.

Telford, R.J., Vandvik, V. & Birks, H.J.B. (2006). Dispersal limitations matter for microbial morphospecies. Science (New York) 312: 1015.

Trobajo, R., Clavero, E., Chepurnov, V.A., Sabbe, K., Mann, D.G., Ishihara, S. & Cox, E.J. (2009). Morphological, genetic and mating diversity within the widespread bioindicator Nitzschia palea (Bacillariophyceae). Phycologia 48: 443-459

Vyverman, W., Verleyen, E., Sabbe, K., Vanhoutte, K., Sterken, M., Hodgson, D.A., Mann, D.G., Juggins, S., van de Vijver, B., Jones, V., Flower, R., Roberts, D., Chepurnov, V., Kilroy, C., Vanormelingen, P. & de Wever, A. (2002). Historical processes constrain patterns in global diatom diversity. Ecology 88: 1924-1931.

A view of the Tien’shan mountains from near So’qoq, Uzbekistan.

What does it all mean?

Just over a quarter of a century ago, my friend and colleague Steve Juggins and a group of other palaeoecologists came up with a clever way to relate the composition of diatom samples taken from different levels of a sediment core to the environmental conditions of the lake at the time that these diatoms were alive.   At the heart of this was a set of statistical tools called “transfer functions” and the use of these has proliferated over subsequent years, spilling from diatoms to many other groups of organisms and from palaeoecological studies to contemporary investigations of man’s impact on the environment.   So pervasive have these methods become that Steve returned to the subject a few years ago and critiqued the many misuses of the method that he was seeing in the literature.

The principle behind the use of transfer functions is that each species has a characteristic response to an environmental pressure gradient (in early studies this was pH) which could be portrayed as a unimodal (approximately bell-shaped curve).   The point along the gradient where a species is most abundant represents the “optimum” condition, the level of the pressure where the species thrives best.  The average of the optima of all organisms in a sample, Steve and colleagues showed, could be then used to estimate the value of the pressure.   This unlocked the door to quantitative reconstructions of changes in acidification of lakes in the UK and Scandinavia that, in turn, ultimately shaped environmental policy. It was one of the most impressive achievements of applied ecologists in the 20th century.

A diagrammatic representation of the principle behind transfer functions: each organism has a characteristic response to the predominant pressure (nutrient/organic pollution in this case).

Part of the reason for their success in building strong predictive models was, I suspect, that the pollutant that they were focussed upon had a direct effect on the physiology of the cells which, in turn, created strong selective pressures on the community.   Another reason was that palaeoecological samples condense all the habitat variation within a lake (plankton v benthic, seasonal differences etc) into a single assemblage.   This, then, begs the question of how well we should expect transfer functions to perform when applied to assemblages which represent much narrower windows of space and time, and when the pollutants of interest exert indirect rather than direct effects on the organisms.   Or, to recast that question another way, are some of the problems we encounter interpreting diatom indices from rivers another form of the misuse of transfer functions that Steve dissects in his review?

It is easy to believe that transfer functions do work when applied to contemporary diatom assemblages from rivers.   If you evaluate datasets you will almost certainly find that the “optima” for all the species do appear to be arranged along a continuum along the pressure gradient.  The question that we need to ask is whether this represents a causal relationship or is just a statistical artefact?  I touched on this issue in “What we expect is often what we get …” but, in that post, I was mostly interested in how samples react along a gradient, not the response of individual species.  I suspect that, given the importance of alkalinity in freshwater algal ecology (see “Ecology in the Hard Rock Café”), this must influence the distribution of optima along a nutrient gradient.   This will be compounded when sample sizes are small, as the likelihood is that the sample optimum will not correspond exactly to the “true” optimum for the species in question (a question Steve has also addressed in a more recent paper – see reference list below).  Finally, this is all embedded within a larger problem: that most of the work I have discussed here involves statistical inference from datasets compiled from samples collected from a range of sites in a region, but is intended to address changes in time rather than space (so-called “space-for-time substitution – see reference by Pickett below).   There has been relatively little testing of species preferences under controlled experimental conditions.

In practice, I suspect, the physiological response of benthic algae to nutrients is less complicated than our noisy graphs suggest.   I set out a version of this in “What we expect is often what we get …”.   That post dealt primarily with communities of microalgae; this is the same basic scheme (with some slight revisions) but posed in terms of the physiological response of the organisms.  It borrows from the habitat matrix conceptual model of Barry Biggs, Jan Stevenson and Rex Lowe (which, itself, builds on earlier work on terrestrial plants by Phil Grime and colleagues).

An alternative explanation for the response of benthic algae to nutrients and organic pollution.  a., b., c. and d. are explained in the text.

  1. Low nutrients / high oxygen concentrations – the “natural state” in most cases. Biggs et al. referred to species adapted to such conditions “stress-adapted” as they can cope in situations where nutrients are scarce. Associated with TDI scores 1 and 2.  Examples: Hannaea arcus, Achnanthidium minutissimum, Tabellaria flocculosa.
  2. high nutrients / no “secondary effects” of eutrophication – these are “competitive” species in Biggs et al.’s template and can thrive when there is anthropogenic enrichment of nutrients. Ideally, this group would consist of species that have a physiological adaptation that allows them to thrive when nutrients are plentiful though, in practice, our understanding is based mostly on inference from spatial patterns. The “window” where such species can thrive is wide, and will overlap with the two states described below, in many cases.  Associated with TDI scores 3 and 4.  Examples: Amphora pediculus, Rhoicosphenia abbreviata, Cocconeis pediculus.  Cladophora glomerata would be a good example of a non-diatom that belongs to this group.
  3. high nutrients plus “secondary effects” of eutrophication – this category extends the habitat template of Biggs et al. to include organisms whose are reacting to secondary effects  of nutrient enrichment (e.g. shade and low oxygen) rather than to the elevated nutrients per se and is, consequently, difficult to differentiate from a direct response to organic pollution. Associated with TDI scores 4 and 5. Examples include several species of Nitzschia as well as Mayamaea and Fistulifera, amongst others.   Importantly, this group may co-exist with representatives from group b. – perhaps inhabiting different zones of the biofilm that typically blend together when a sample is taken.
  4. high nutrients / very low oxygen – a final category that represents extreme situations when an ability to cope with reducing conditions is beneficial, and where diatoms that are facultative heterotrophs may thrive. Associated with TDI score 5. Heterotrophic fungal and bacterial growths (“sewage fungus”) may also be abundant.  Once again, there is likely to be some overlap between this and other groups.   Technically, this group is more likely to be associated with serious organic pollution than with nutrients; however, it will be found at sites where nutrient concentrations are high and it is possible that an association with nutrients may be inferred from spatial patterns.

We are left, in other words, with a choice between deriving optima along a continuous scale based on inferences from spatial patterns within which we know that there are significant confounding variables or dividing species into a few physiologically-defined categories for which there is not very much experimental underpinning.   Neither is ideal, and some of our recent analyses suggest that, in terms of model strength, there is little to choose between them.   The former, in my view, suggests an artificially high level of precision that is unrealistic, given the current state of knowledge.   The latter, on the other hand, links the data to a conceptual model rather than simply relying upon the numbers that squirt out at the far end of a statistical process.

That does not mean that such an approach might not be appropriate for some other groups of organisms.  The reason why I urge simplicity for diatoms is largely because of the scale of the habitats that we are sampling, in relation to the wider patterns of variability.  A continuous series of optima may be appropriate in some cases too.   Macrophytes surveys, for example, encompass all visible organisms found along a 100 m stretch.   These will have a range of life history and nutrient acquisition strategies: some of these will take up nutrients from the water, some from the sediments.  Different types of sediment will vary in the supply of phosphorus and nitrogen, and so on.   There will still be issues of confounding variables and risks of inferring from correlative rather than causal relationships, but perhaps the overall patchiness experienced over the survey length will create a more complex web of interactions between nutrients and community that justifies a continuous scale.

For diatoms, however, simplicity is probably the best choice.   In the absence of definitive evidence one way or the other we apply Occam’s Razor (“entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”) and opt for the simpler of the two hypotheses pending evidence to the contrary.   This, in turn, may address a deeper issue: that of finding robust answers to complex problems (see “Unravelling causal thickets …”).   Inference from statistical models is only as good as the conceptual models that underpin those models and, I fear, we too often are so lost in the detail of the many confounding variables that we lose sight of our goals.  Being able to understand our observations in terms of ecological process is the first step to finding robust solutions to our problems.

References

Bennion, H., Juggins, S. & Anderson, N.J. (1996).  Predicting epilimnetic phosphorus concentrations using an improved diatom-based transfer function and its application to lake eutrophication management. Environmental Science & Technology 30: 2004-2007.

Biggs, B.J.F., Stevenson, R.J. & Lowe, R.L. (1991). A habitat matrix conceptual model for stream periphyton. Archiv für Hydrobiologie 143: 21-56.

Birks, H.J.B.,  Line, J.M., Juggins, S., Stevenson, A.C. & ter Braak, C.J.F.  (1990). Lake surface-water chemistry reconstructions from palaeolimnological data. Diatoms and pH reconstruction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B 327: 263-278.

Juggins, S. (2013).  Quantitative reconstructions in palaeolimnology: new paradigm or sick science?  Quaternary Science Reviews 64: 20-32.

Kelly, M.G., King, L. & Ní Chatháin, B. (2009).  The conceptual basis of ecological status assessments using diatoms.  Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 109B: 175-189.

Pickett, S.T.A. (1988).  Space-for-time substitution as an alternative to long-term studies.  Pp. 110-135.   In: Long-term Studies in Ecology: Approaches and Alternatives (edited by G.E.. Likens).  Springer-Verlag, New York.

Reavie, E.D. & Juggins, S. (2011).  Exploration of sample size and diatom-based indicator performance in three North American phosphorus training sets.  Aquatic Ecology 45: 529-538.

Back to the Himalayas …

It is always nice to tie up loose ends left in earlier posts, so I was pleased to find a recent paper that put a name on a diatom that I had illustrated, but not been able to name, during my examination of material from a high altitude lake in Ladakh (see “Diatoms from Pangong Tso”).   I had assumed that this was a species of Gomphonema; however, Pat Kociolek and colleagues have placed it in a completely new genus, Gomphosinica.

Following their paper, the diatom that was abundant in the littoral of Pangong Tso is most likely Gomphosinica lacustris and this would be the first record of the genus in India.  The type location for this species is Kalakule Lake in the Kunlum Mountains of Xianjiang Province, northwest China, some 800 km north of Ladakh, and on the other side of the Tibetan Plateau.   They describe their sample as “planktonic in the lake”, whereas the populations I described formed distinct growths in the littoral zone (see “Return to Pangong Tso”).  They also have recorded it from Sichuan province, in southwest China.   Pangong Tso actually marks the Indian-Chinese border, so it should not be a great surprise to have found it here.

Altogether, Pat Kociolek and colleagues found three new species of Gomphosinica in China, and transferred a previously-described species of Gomphonema found in Nepal to the genus.  However, they also found four species in Montana, in the USA, and made one further transfer of a Gomphoneis first described from the Great Lakes.  Bear in mind, too, that Gomphosinica species are distinctive, so it is unlikely that the absence of Gomphosinica in regions other than China and the USA is an oversight on the part of diatomists.  There is clearly more to learn about the biogeography of this genus.

Having said that Gomphosinica is distinctive, it is hard to say exactly how it differs from Gomphonema based on what we can see with the light microscope alone.  The distinctive features can only be seen with scanning electron microscope, and it would be interesting to get some molecular barcodes from members of this genus to see how these compare with those from Gomphonema and relatives.  This might also shed some light on the differences between the North American and Asian species.

The same journal part also contained a paper on diatoms from the Doon Valley, near Dehra Dun in Uttarakhand, which may shed some light on the diatoms that I found nearby in the Ganges at Rishikesh (see “Diatoms from a holy river”).   I named these using the identification literature that I had to hand (mostly from Europe) and included “Gomphonema pumilum” in my list.  This new paper suggests that there may be local species which look very similar, including G. juettnerii and G. doonensis.   My population does not fit the dimensions of either of these exactly, and my inclination would still be that at least the larger of the two specimens I illustrated is G. pumilum, but there is enough in this paper to remind me that trusting a European flora when studying the diatoms of Asia is dangerous.   Whether these diatoms actually fill different niches in their respective ecosystems, or whether they are just genetically-distinct forms of what is, basically, food for relatively unfussy invertebrate larvae on both continents is a question for another day.

Note: the photograph at the top of the post is an early-evening view of a river in the Outer Himalaya Zone in the vicinity of Dehra Dun.

Reference

Karthick, B., Nautiyal, R., Kociolek, J.P. & Ramachandra, T.V. (2015).  Two new species of Gomphonema (Bacillariophyceae) from Doon Valley, Uttarakhand, India.  Nova Hedwigia, Beiheft 144: 166-174.

Kociolek, J.P., You, Q-M., Wang, Q-X. and Liu, Q. (2015).  A consideration of some interesting freshwater gomphonemoid diatoms from North America and China, and the description of Gomphosinica gen. nov..  Nova Hedwigia, Beiheft 144: 175-198.

Lost in detail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

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

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

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

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

Note:

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

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

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