A brief history of time-wasting …*

Having talked about diversity on a microscale in the previous post, I thought it would be interesting to place this in context by looking at the variations that I have observed in the River Wear at Wolsingham over the past decade or so.   The River Wear has seen some significant improvements in water quality over this period, but those have mainly affected sections of the river downstream from Wolsingham.  Most of the changes at Wolsingham are, therefore, giving us some insights into the range of natural variation that we should expect to see in a river.

I’ve got 31 samples from the River Wear at Wolsingham on my database, collected since 2005.  Over this period, nine different diatom species have dominated my counts: Achnanthidium minutissimum on 21 occasions, Nitzschia dissipata twice and Cocconeis euglypta, Encyonema silesiacum, Gomphonema calcifugum, Navicula lanceolata, Nitzshia archibaldii, N. paleacea and Reimeria sinuata once each.   I also have records for non-diatoms during 2009, during which time the green alga Ulothrix zonata, and two Cyanobacteria, Phormidium retzii and Homeothrix varians were the dominant alga on one occasion each.   In total, I have recorded 131 species of diatom from this one reach, although only I’ve only found 91 of them more than once, and only 59 have ever formed more than one percent of the total.   I’ve also got records of 22 species other than diatoms.

This – along with my comments in “The mystery of the alga that wasn’t there …” raises questions about just how effective a single sample is at capturing the diversity of algae present at a site.  .    In 2009 I collected a sample every month from Wolsingham and the graph below shows how the total number of species recorded increased over that period.   Typically, I find between 20 and 30 species in a single sample, and each subsequent month revealed a few that I had not seen in earlier samples.   Importantly, no single sample contained more than 40 per cent of the total diversity I observed over the course of the year.  Part of this high diversity is because of the greater effort invested but there is also a seasonal element, as I’ve already discussed.   The latter, in particular, means that we need to be very careful about making comments about alpha diversity of microalgae if we only have a single sample from a site.

Increase in the number of diatom taxa recorded in successive samples from the River Wear at Wolsingham.  In 2009 samples were collected monthly between January and December whilst in 2014 samples were collected quarterly. 

This seasonal pattern in the algal community also translates into variation in the Trophic Diatom Index, the measure we use to evaluate the condition of streams and rivers.  The trend is weak, for reasons that I have discussed in earlier posts, but it is there, nonetheless.   Not every river has such a seasonal trend and, in some cases, the community dynamics results in the opposite pattern: higher values in the summer and lower values in the winter.  It is, however, something that we have to keep in mind when evaluating ecological status.

Variation in the Trophic Diatom Index in the River Wear at Wolsingham between 2005 and 2015, with samples organised by month, from January (1) to December (12).   The blue line shows a LOESS regression and the grey band is the 95% confidence limits around this line.

All of these factors translate into uncertainty when evaluating ecological status.   In the case of the River Wear at Wolsingham, this is not particularly serious as most of the samples indicate “high status” and all are to the right of the key regulatory boundary of “good status”.  However, imagine if the histogram of EQRs was slid a little to the left, so that it straddled the good and moderate boundaries, and then put yourself in the position of the people who have to decide whether or not to make a water company invest a million pounds to improve the wastewater coming from one of their sewage treatment plants.

At this point, having a long-term perspective and knowing about the ecology of individual species may allow you to explain why an apparent dip into moderate status may not be a cause for concern.  Having a general sense of the ecology of the river – particularly those aspects not measured during formal status assessments – should help too.  It is quite common for the range of diatom results from a site to encompass an entire status class or more so the interpretative skills of the biologists play an important role in decision-making.   Unfortunately, if anything the trend is in the opposite direction: fewer samples being collected per site due to financial pressures, more automation in sample and data analysis leading to ecologists spending more time peering at spreadsheets than peering at stream beds.

I’ve never been in the invidious position of having to make hard decisions about how scarce public sector resources are used.  However, it does strike me that the time that ecologists used to spend in the field and laboratory, though deemed “inefficient” by middle managers trying to find cost savings, was the time that they learned to understand the rivers for which they were responsible.  The great irony is that, in a time when politicians trumpet the virtues of evidence-led policy, there is often barely enough ecological data being collected, and not enough time spent developing interpretative skills, for sensible decisions to be made.   Gathering ecological information takes time.   But if that leads to better decisions, then that is not time wasted …

Ecological Quality Ratio (EQR: observed TDI / expected TDI) of phytobenthos (diatoms) at the River Wear, Wolsingham) between 2005 and 2015.   Blue, green, orange and red lines show the positions of high, good, moderate and poor status class boundaries respectively.

* the title is borrowed from the late Janet Smith’s BBC Radio 4 comedy series


Our patchwork heritage* …

The problem with the case I set out for a “switch” from a winter / early spring biofilm community to a summer / autumn assemblage is the sample that I was writing about contained elements of both.   This, I think, is another aspect of an issue that I touched upon in “The River Wear in January”: that the scale that we work at is much greater than the scales at which the forces which shape biofilms operate.   There is no intrinsic driver for this switch beyond the physical forces in the river but each stone will have a slightly different history.  A smaller cobble will be more likely to be rolled than a boulder, as will one that is not sheltered from the main current, or not well bedded into the substratum.  The sample I collect is a composite from the upper surface of five separate cobbles so will blend these different histories.   The more stable stone might have more Navicula lanceolata and Gomphonema olivaceum whilst the recently rolled might be dominated by early colonisers such as Achnanthidium minutissimum.

The same processes can even work on a single stone.   Arlette Cazaubon, a French diatomist, now retired, wrote several papers on this topic (see references at the end of this post).  She highlighted how the diatom assemblages differed across the surface of a boulder, depending on the exposure to the current.  However, that is only part of the story.  The picture at the top of the post was taken in January, when I was collecting my first samples of the year.  You can see the streak where I ran my finger through the biofilm and some other marks, perhaps where the heel of my wader had scuffed the stone (I’m trying to keep my balance in the middle of a northern English river in January whilst holding a waterproof camera underwater, remember).   But such damage could have arisen just as easily from twigs or stones that were being washed downstream.   Taken together with Arlette’s work, it shows how a mature Navicula lanceolata / Gomphonema olivaceum assemblage can live alongside a pioneer Achnanthidium minutissimum assemblage.

A schematic view of the biofilm in the River Wear at Wolsingham, March 2018.   a. Navicula lanceolata; b. Gomphonema olivaceum complex; c. Fragilaria gracilis; d. Achnanthidium minutissimum.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).

I’ve tried to depict that in the schematic diagram above.   On the left-hand side there is a mature biofilm, with long-stalked Gomphonema species creating a matrix within which motile diatoms such as Navicula lanceolata live whilst, on the right, there is a pioneer community dominated by Achnanthidium minutissimum.   However, whilst this patchiness is a natural phenomenon, it can contribute to the variability we see in ecological data and, indirectly, to an impression that ecological data are not precise.   If I were to divide the diagram above into two halves, the left-hand side would return a higher TDI than the right.  This is because the diatoms on that side have broader ecological tolerances than those on the other (the sample size, by the way, is far too small to do this seriously but I just want to make a point).   In practice, however, the entire diagram represents little more than the width of a single bristle of the toothbrush that I use to collect samples so a sample is, inevitably, an amalgam of many different microhabitats on a stone.  Our assessment of the condition of the river represents the average of all the patches across the five stones that form a typical sample on that day.

The importance of patchiness in determining the structure and composition of stream communities has been known for some time (see review by Alan Hildrew and Paul Giller in the reference list).   What we have to remember when trying to understand phytobenthos is that patchiness is, to some extent, embedded in the samples we collect, rather than being something that our present sampling strategies might reveal.

* “… for we know our patchwork heritage is a strength not a weakness ..” Barack Obama: inaugural address, 2009


A useful review on patchiness in stream ecosytems (several other papers in this volume also discuss patchiness in freshwater and marine environments):

Hildrew, A.G. & Giller, P.S. (1994).  Patchiness, species interactions and disturbance in the stream benthos.  pp. 21-62.  In: Aquatic Ecology: Scale, Pattern and Process (edited by P.S. Giller, A.G. Hildrew & D.G. Rafaelli).   Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.

Some of Arlette Cazaubon’s papers on variability in diatom assemblages across the surfaces of single stones:

Rolland, T., Fayolle, S., Cazaubon, A. & Pagnetti, S. (1997). Methodological approach to distribution of epilithic and drifting algae communities in a French subalpine river: inferences on water quality assessment. Aquatic Science 59: 57-73.

Cazaubon, A. & Loudiki, M. (1986). Microrépartition des algues épilithiques sur les cailloux d’un torrent Corse, le Rizzanese. Annals de Limnologie 22: 3-16.

Cazaubon, A. (1986). Role du courant sur la microdistribution des diatomées epilithiques dans une Riviere Méditerranéenne, L’Argens (Var, Provence). pp. 93-107.   Proceedings of the 9th Diatom Symposium.   Bristol.

Cazaubon, A. (1988). The significance of a sample in a natural lotic ecosystem: microdistribution of diatoms in the karstic Argens Spring, south-east France.  pp. 513-519.   In: Proceedings of the 10th Diatom Symposium, Joensuu, Finland.

The mystery of the alga that wasn’t there…

I was back at the River Wear at Wolsingham a few days ago for my second visit of the year (see “The River Wear in January” and “The curious life of biofilms” for accounts of the first visit).   I had wanted to go out earlier in the month but we’ve had a month of terrible weather that has translated into high river flows.  Even this trip was touch and go: the river was about 30 cm higher than usual and the gravel berm that usually stretches out under the bridge on the left bank was largely submerged.

Compare the image of the substratum with the one I took in January: that one had a thick film with a chocolate-brown surface whilst the March substratum had a much thinner film lacking any differentiation into two layers.  When I put a small sample of the biofilm under my microscope, I could see that it was dominated by diatoms with only a few strands of green algae.   Many of the diatoms that I saw in January were still here in March but Navicula lanceolata, which comprised over half the algal cells I saw in January was now just 15 per cent of the total whilst Achnanthidium minutissimum was up from about 15 per cent to about 40%.    However, as A. minutissimum is a much smaller cell, N. lanceolata still formed more of the total biovolume.   One other difference that I noticed as I peered down my microscope was that there was much less amorphous organic matter in the March sample compared with the one from January.

The substratum at the River Wear, Wolsingham on 24 March 2018.   The photograph at the top shows the view from the road bridge looking downstream.

When I looked back at notes I had taken after my visit in March 2009, I saw that the riverbed then had been covered with lush growths of the green alga Ulothrix zonata (you can see a photograph of this in “BollihopeBurn in close-up”).   I did not see this on my visit last week.  That might be because the high water level means that I could not explore as much of the river as I wanted, but it was more likely a consequence of the preceding conditions.   The graph below shows at least three separate high flow events during March, the first of which associated with the melting of the snow that fell during the “Beast from the East”.   I suspect that these high flow events would have both moved the smaller substrata (the ones I usually pick up to sample!) scouring away the biofilms in the process.

A view of the biofilm from the River Wear, Wolsingham in March 2018.

River levels at Stanhope, 20 km upstream from Wolsingham across March 2018 showing three separate high flow events.  A screenshot from www.gaugemap.co.uk.

The final graph shows the trend in the three algae that I’ve been talking about over the course of 2009, which is similar to what I am seeing in 2018 except that that the timing of the decline in Navicula lanceolata and Ulothrix zonata along with the increase in Achnanthidium minutissimum is slightly different.   In very broad terms N. lanceolata is typical of winter / early spring conditions, favoured by thick biofilms partly created by the matrix of stalks that Gomphonema olivaceum and relatives creates.   Achnanthidium minutissimum, on the other hand, is the most abundant alga through the summer and early autumn.  It is a species that thrives in disturbed conditions, such as we would expect after the weather we’ve experienced this March.   However, we must not forget that the grazing invertebrates that thrive

during the summer months also represent a type of disturbance.  Ulothrix zonata thrives in the late winter / early spring window (see “The intricate ecology of green slime”).   I would have expected it to have persisted beyond March but, as I said earlier in the post, I may have missed some as it was difficult to get a good impression of the whole reach due to high flows.

This moveable switch between a “winter” and “summer” state creates a problem when we are sampling for ecological status assessments.   The Environment Agency has, for as long as I have worked with them, had a “spring” sampling window that starts on 1 March and runs to the end of May.  As you can see, this straddles the period when there is a considerable shift in the composition of the flora.   I’ve always suggested that they wait as long as possible within this window to collect diatom samples to increase the chance of being past the switch.  However, with a huge network to cover in a short period, along with other logistical considerations, this was always easier said than done.   I’ve worked closely with the Environment Agency to manage as much of the variation in their diatom analyses as is possible (see “Reaching a half century …”); one of the mild ironies is that simply being a huge Behemoth of an organisation can, itself, be the source of some of the variation that we are trying to manage.

Trends in approximate biovolume of three common taxa discussed in this post in the River Wear at Wolsingham during 2009.  

Burnhope Burn’s beautiful biofilms …

I have continued the series of studies that I started in “In search of the source of the Wear” with a three-dimensional diorama of the biofilm that I found at the mouth of Burnhope Burn, and can now compare it with the corresponding study from Wolsingham (see “The curious life of biofilms”).   The two big differences are the greater number of green filaments at Burnhope and the large numbers of cells of Navicula lanceolata at Wolsingham.   I suspect the two are linked: the Wolsingham biofilm was a mix of diatoms and organic particulate matter along with associated bacteria whilst the Burnhope biofilm was green algae and organic matter with diatoms in a subordinate role.  I speculated, in my earlier post, that Burnhope Burn’s location below a reservoir may have altered the hydrology of the stream such that green algae were favoured.   I wonder, too, if the presence of green algae then subtly shifts the composition of the biofilm matrix such that dense aggregations of Navicula lanceolata are not able to develop in the way that they could at Wolsingham.

There is something about the ecology of a few Navicula species that leads to the development of these aggregations (see “The ecology of cold days” for more about freshwaters, whilst “An excuse for a crab sandwich, really” and “A typical Geordie alga …” describes similar phenomena in brackish habitats).   Conversely, Nitzschia dissipata, which was the most abundant diatom at Burnhope Burn, never seems to form these dense monocultures.   Nitzschia dissipata was also much less common in the biofilm from Killhope Burn, just a few metres away from where I collected the Burnhope sample and where filamentous green algae are scarce.  wonder if this, too, is more than a coincidence and that N. dissipata is actually adapted to living within matrices formed by filamentous algae rather than on top of matrices dominated by diatoms and organic particulates?

I have seen a few other motile diatoms – Denticula tenuis is one – that seem to be more abundant in the presence of filamentous algae.   There may also be species that thrive when the matrix is composed largely of inorganic particles, as well as other species (Navicula angusta and N. notha are two that spring to mind) that may be naturally “understory” species that are never especially abundant in biofilms.   All this is pure speculation, but it is worth remembering that most of the insights into diatom ecology come from studies on cleaned valves which removes all traces of non-diatom algae, and also that the prevailing dogma of diatom sensitivity to their chemical environment is such that non-chemical factors are largely overlooked in academic studies.   No evidence, in this case, may just mean that no-one has asked the right questions.

In search of the source of the Wear …

Having investigated the microscopic world at Wolsingham (see “The River Wear in January” and “The curious life of biofilms), I decided that it would be interesting to head further upstream and see how much difference there was between the algae at the two locations.  I drove up to Wearhead on a cold Saturday morning to take a look but was immediately faced with a conundrum: the River Wear is formed from the confluence of two very different streams, both with extensive catchments on the moors of the northern Pennines.   One of these is Burnhope Burn, which is fed by Burnhope Reservoir, about a kilometre above Wearhead, and the other is Killhope Burn, which drains a large area of blanket bog, forestry and, importantly, abandoned metal mines.   Burnhope Burn is on the left of the photograph above whilst Killhope Burn comes in from the right.  I thought it might be rather interesting to take a sample from each and see how they compared.

The two streams look quite different to one another.   Burnhope Burn, its flow regulated by the reservoir, is the Cain of the pair whilst Killhope Burn is the unruly turbulent Abel.   This was apparent, too, when I was collecting the samples and, again, when I peered at them through my microscope.   Burnhope Burn’s biofilm was thicker and the most conspicuous algae that I could see were green filaments of Klebsormidium.  Killhope Burn’s was thinner and dominated by diatoms.   Many of the same diatoms were found in the two samples, but Burnhope Burn had more of the motile Nitzschia species that benefit from the tangled matrix of green algal filaments that thrived there.

Views of the biofilm from Burnhope Burn (a.) and Killhope Burn (b.) just above their confluence to form the River Wear, February 2018.

I’ve tried to capture the essence of the biofilm from Burnhope Burn in the schematic diagram below.  Compare this with the diagram of the biofilm from the Wear that I showed in my earlier post.   In both cases, we have a mix of organic and inorganic elements, with the organic matter further divided into living organisms and agglomerations of particulate matter.  A few of the species are common to both but there are also some notable differences.   The biofilm in the Wear, for example, had almost no green algae (though that may change over the coming months) whilst that from Burnhope Burn has many filaments of Klebsormidium.   There were motile diatoms at both locations but the species are different: Navicula lanceolata and N. gregaria at Wolsingham and Nitzschia dissipata at Burnhope Burn.  People usually describe differences in the ecology of diatoms in terms of their chemical environment but I sometimes wonder if, in the case of motile diatoms, the nature of the matrix within which they live also plays a role in determining which thrive.

The difference between Burnhope and Killhope Burns is a variation of the theme that I discussed in “Small details in the big picture …”.  Again, regulation of a river or stream plays a role in determining which species of algae can thrive.  However, whereas I found a lot of Platessa oblongella in the unregulated streams of the Ennerdale catchment, the more base-rich environment of the Pennines means that I am much less likely to find P. oblongella in these streams.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen it in north-east England (see distribution maps in “Why do you look for the living amongst the dead”).

That reminds me: I was going to write more about the ecology of Platessa oblongella before I was diverted by desmids and Wearhead.   Soon …

A schematic view of the vertical structure of a submerged biofilm from Burnhope Burn, Wearhead, February 2018.   a. Klebsormidium fluitans; b.  Phormidium; c. Nitzschia dissipata (valve view); d. N. dissipata (girdle view); e. Gomphonema cf. calcifugum (valve and girdle views); f. inorganic particles; g. fine particulate organic matter.  Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/40th of a millimetre).


The River Wear in January

The series of events that eventually gave birth to this blog started with a visit to the River Wear at Wolsingham on the first day of 2009.  I had visited on a whim, intending to blow away the cobwebs after lunch on New Year’s Day, but with no real plan.  But I thought it would be interesting to pull on my waders and have a look at the river bed and, while I was there, I may as well collect a sample too.   Those observations and that sample must have triggered something in my mind, because I returned every month after that and, on each occasion, the samples and observations generated sketches which, in turn, made me curious about the factors that drove the algal communities in our rivers.

I thought it would be interesting to repeat that exercise during 2018 as my thinking has moved on over the past nine years.  I’m essentially visiting the same site and making the same observations but, this time, filtering them through deeper beds of experience.   The River Wear at this point is about 30 metres wide, a broad, shallow, riffled stretch, skirting the small town of Wolsingham roughly at the point where Weardale broadens out from a narrow Pennine valley to the gentler landscape of the Durham coalfield.  There are a couple of small towns upstream but the ecological condition of the river is still good.  Although there are still concerns about concentrations of heavy metals arising from the mines that are scattered around the upper parts of the valleys, I can see no serious effects of toxic pollution when I look at the plants and animals that live at Wolsingham.

If you follow this blog you will not be surprised to hear that, even in the depths of winter, algal communities in the River Wear are thriving Most of the larger stone surfaces are covered with a discernible brown film, up to a couple of millimetres thick.   The very top layer is dark brown in colour, with a lighter brown layer beneath this.   When I put a sample of this under my microscope, I saw that it was dominated by gliding cells of Navicula lanceolata, though other diatoms were also present (described in more detail in “The ecology of cold days”) and there were also a few thin filaments of a blue-green alga.

A submerged cobble photographed in situ in the River Wear at Wolsingham, January 2018, covered with a thick diatom-dominated biofilm.

I’ve included a picture of the view down my microscope because one of the questions that I’ve been trying to answer over the past few years is how we construct an understanding of the microscopic world using microscopy (see “The central dilemma of microscopy” and “Do we see through a microscope?”).   Of course, a single view field of view does not convey all the information I require, so my understanding is actually built up from observations of a large number of separate fields.  The boat-shaped cells of Navicula lanceolata were almost ubiquitous in these, as were patches of amorphous organic matter (“fine particulate organic matter” – see “A very dilute compost heap …”).  In total, I found 15 different species of algae in my preliminary analysis, of which Navicula lanceolata comprised about half of the total, with thin filaments of the cyanobacterium Phormidium and the diatom Achnanthidium minutissimum each constituting about 15 per cent.

A view of the biofilm from the River Wear, Wolsingham in January 2018.

However, my earlier comment about the biofilms having distinct layers means that simply observing what organisms are present will not tell us the whole story about how those organisms are organised within the biofilm (see “The multiple dimensions of submerged biofilms …”) so the next step is to hypothesise how these organisms might be arranged in the biofilm before I disrupted their microhabitat with my sampling.   The schematic diagram below attempts to capture this, but with a few provisos.  First, I said that the biofilm was a couple of millimetres thick but my portrayal only shows about a tenth of a millimetre; second, there is considerable spatial and temporal variation in biofilms and my depiction amalgamates my direct observations in January 2018 with information gleaned from a number of other visits.   Gomphonema olivaceum (probably a complex of two or three species in this particular case), for example, is often more prominent than it was last week, and I have also omitted Achnanthidium minutissimum altogether.   I suspect that this is less abundant in the mature biofilms but that the cobble surface is a patchwork of different thicknesses, reflecting different types of disturbance.   That raises another issue: the scale at which we generally collect samples is greater than the scales at which the forces which shape biofilms operate.   The whole image below, for context, occupies about the same width as a single bristle on the toothbrush that I used to collect the sample.

It is difficult to convert what we “see” back to the original condition when working under such constraints and, inevitably, decisions are guided by what others before us have written.  That brings a different set of problems: Isaac Newton may have seen further by “standing on the shoulders of giants” but Leonardo da Vinci’s usually rigorous objectivity lapsed on at least one occasion when his eye was led by assumptions he had inherited from earlier generations (see “I am only trying to teach you to see …”).   What my picture is actually showing, in other words, is a mixture of what I saw and what I think I should have seen.   This two-way process in art extends from the very earliest drawings we make through to the most sophisticated Old Masters so I am in good company.  In truth, I am not trying to depict a particular point in space or time so much as to encapsulate the idea of a biofilm from that river that is more than a random aggregation of cells.

A schematic view of the vertical structure of a submerged biofilm from the River Wear, Wolsingham, January 2018.   a., Navicula lanceolata (valve view); b., N. lanceolata (girdle view); c. Navicula gregaria (valve view); d. N. gregaria (girdle view); e. Gomphonema olivaceum (valve view); f. G. olivaceum (girdle view); g. Phormidium; h. inorganic particles; i. fine particulate organic matter.  Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/40th of a millimetre).


You can find out more about the condition of the River Wear (or any other river or lake) using the Environment Agency’s excellent Catchment Planning webpages

Three good books that discuss the relationship between pictorial representation and the mind are:

Cox, Maureen (1992).  Children’s Drawings.   Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Gombrich, E.H. (1977) Art and Illusion: a study in the psychology of pictorial representation.   5th Edition.  Phaidon, London.

Hamilton, James (2017).  Gainsborough: a Portrait.   Weidenfield & Nicholson, London.



Change is the only constant …

The diatoms I saw in my sample from the littoral of Lake Popovo (described in the previous post) reminded me of an assemblage that I had seen in another lake which, apart from its location, has much in common with Popovo. This lake is Wastwater, in the western part of the English Lake District (see “The Power of Rock …”).  Like Popovo, it is situated in a remote a region of hard volcanic rocks and, as such, has very soft water and is subject to few of the pressures to which most of our freshwaters are subject.  The photograph above shows me sampling Wastwater in about 2006 (more about this photograph, by the way, in “A cautionary tale …”).

I wrote about Wastwater when I was writing my book Of Microscopes and Monsters, the precursor of this blog.   I focussed, in particular, on an experiment that my friend Lydia King had performed as part of the research towards her PhD.  Her previous work had established that there were relationships between the types of algae that she found in lakes in the Lake District and the amount of nutrients that they contained.  She also saw that the types of algae she found depended upon how acid or alkaline the water was.  But the water chemistry only explained a part of the variation in the algae and now she wanted to find out about the variation that was not explained by this.   In particular, she wanted to know how much of the variation was due to the way that the algae interacted with each other.

Lydia’s experiment involved putting clay pots into the shallows at the edge of Wastwater and then watched how the algal communities changed over the course of six weeks.  She also examined small parts of the pots at extremely high magnifications using a scanning electron microscope.   These micrographs, and subsequent conversations with her, had inspired some of my early paintings and I returned to this subject several times, finally producing a series of three pictures that showed changes in the algae over time.

The microbial world of the littoral zone of Wastwater after two weeks of colonisation showing unidentified small unicellular blue-green alga,  unidentified small unicellular green alga; thin filaments of Phormidium,  Achnanthidium minutissimum and Gomphonema parvulum.

The first of these shows the surface of the plant pot after being submerged in Wastwater for two weeks.   You could think of this as a patch of waste ground that was, at the start of the experiment, bare of vegetation.   If we watched this patch over a number of weeks, we would notice some plants appearing: scattered stalks of grass, perhaps some rosebay willow herb, dock or plantains. A gardener might dismiss these as “weeds”, although this term has no ecological meaning but ecologists prefer to think of these as “pioneers”: plants adapted to colonising new habitats, growing quickly (which might mean producing lots of seeds in a short space of time or producing rhizomes or runners) and covering the ground.  This same process has taken place on Lydia’s plant pot in Wastwater: the “weeds” in this case are scattered thin filaments of the blue-green alga Phormidium, the diatoms Achnanthidium minutissimum and Gomphonema parvulum plus a number of spherical green and blue-green cells that she couldn’t identify.   Such is the scale that we are working at that this open landscape still contains about 92000 cells per square centimetre.

The microbial world of the littoral zone of Wastwater after three weeks of colonisation.   The composition is similar to that in the previous figure but the density of cells is greater.

When she came back a week later, much of the empty space had been infilled; there were now about 300,000 cells per square centimetre.  These mostly belonged to the same species that she had found the week before.  The difference is that they are now rubbing up against each other and this has some important consequences.  All plants need light and nutrients to grow and algae are no exceptions.   Sunlight provides the energy for photosynthesis but now, at week three, the density of algae is such that there is a chance that some of the light will be intercepted by a neighbouring cell.   The total amount of sunlight that filters through the water to the pot surface is already much lower than that available at the lake surface; now it has to be shared out between many more cells.   At this point, properties such as fast growth rates that helped our pioneers to colonise the plant pot become less relevant, and it is algae that are better adapted to capturing the limited light that will survive.

So when Lydia came back to Wastwater after six weeks, she saw a very different community of algae on her pots.   There was still a lot of Achnanthidium minutissimum, but rising above these was the elegant art deco shape of Gomphonema acuminatum (also found in Lake Popovo) which, importantly for our story, grows on a long stalk.  There are also cells of “Cymbella affinis” (the correct name at the time that Lydia was working but see comments in the previous post about the nomenclatural history of this species).   This, too, grows on a long-stalk, the better to grow above the Achnanthidium and other pioneers.   If we continue to use the analogy of a patch of wasteland, then it has now reached the point where it has been invaded by shrubs such as hawthorn and blackthorn.   However, in a terrestrial habitat this would happen two or three years after the first pioneers had arrived, not six weeks as Lydia had observed for the algae.   She also found the diatom called Tabellaria flocculosa which forms filaments.  These often start out loosely-attached to the substratum but more often break free and become entangled around the other algae.   In our “wasteland” analogy, these would be the brambles.

The microbial world of the littoral zone of Wastwater after five weeks of colonisation.  Gomphonema acuminatum, “Cymbella affinis” and Tabellaria flocculosa have now joined the assemblage seen in the two earlier dioramas.

The experiment finished shortly after this, terminated when the apparatus was overturned.  Whether by a wave or by vandalism, Lydia will never know but this event is, itself, a metaphor for the harsh world in which benthic algae have to survive.  In real life, the many cobbles in the littoral zone will be rolled by wave action or, as we have seen in other posts, invertebrate grazers could have removed much of the “shrubbery”, leaving a “pasture” composed of the tough, fast-growing species such as Achnanthidium minutissimum to dominate samples.   The “successions” we see in the microscopic world not only take place much more quickly than those in the macro world, but they also rarely have a stable “climax”: just a brief pause before the next onslaught from the physical, chemical and biological processes that shape their existence.


King, L., Barker, P. & Jones, R.I. (2000). Epilithic algal communities and their relationship to environmental variables in lakes of the English Lake District. Freshwater Biology 45: 425-442.

King, L., Jones, R.I. & Barker, P. (2002). Seasonal variation in the epilithic algal communities from four lakes of different trophic state. Archiv für Hydrobiologie 154: 177-198.