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.