For the past five years or so the constant companion on my desk whilst I stare down my microscope has been a thick tome (2.8 kg) entitled Diatomeen im Süßwasser-Benthos von Mitteleuropa by Gabi Hofmann and colleagues. It serves as my aide-mémoire when I am analysing freshwater diatoms, jogging my memory when I see a diatom that I recognise but whose name I have forgotten. Before this was published, I used a French publication Guide Méthodologique pour la mise en oeuvre de l’Indice Biologique Diatomées which was free to download (I cannot find a link on the web any longer, unfortunately). Neither of these is the last word in diatom taxonomy, but that was not the point: a lot of the time, I just need a gentle reminder of the right name for the species I am looking at, and I don’t want to have to pore through a pile of books in order to find this.
One of the strong points of both books is that they are copiously illustrated, and the plates are arranged very logically so that similar-shaped diatoms are together, making it easy to pick out differences. For most routine identification, this is exactly what is needed: we may pretend that we are logical people but, in truth, pattern matching beats using a key nine times out of ten. The 133 plates in Diatomeen im Süßwasser … act as a visual index and, to make life even easier, the species descriptions are arranged alphabetically and cross-referenced in the plates. Having found an image that resembles the diatom I am trying to identify, it is straightforward to flick to the description to check the details.
There is just one problem: Diatomeen im Süßwasser-Benthos von Mitteleuropa is in German, and quite technical German at that. I tell people not to worry because all the images are in English but, in truth, I worry that I may lose some of the nuances due to my linguistic limitations. I was delighted, then, to be asked by Marco Cantonati to help produce an English version of the book. Marco is half-German so reads and speaks the language fluently, and I was able to work on his first drafts in English to produce the final text. Conscious that translating a German book into English is only a partial solution for the almost 70% of the EU who have neither as their first language, we also unpicked the prose in order to put the information about each species into a series of “bullet points” so that it was more accessible and we also took the opportunity to update some of the taxonomy. A large part of last weekend was spent poring over the proofs so it should not be long now before it is available to purchase.
The great irony for me is that I am putting the finishing touches to this book at the same time as I am helping the Environment Agency to move away from using the light microscope to identify diatoms altogether. I am just finalising the last of the regular competency tests that I organise in which, Environment Agency staff will participate, after which routine samples will be sent off for Next Generation Sequencing rather than being analysed by light microscope. I’ve written about the pros and cons of this before (see “Primed for the unexpected …”) but there is a funny side. After over a decade of struggling with identification literature in a language that almost none of them spoke my dedicated band of Environment Agency analysts get the book they dreamed about two months after their last diatom slide is packed away. My sense of timing is, as ever, impeccable …
Hofmann, G., Werum, M. & Lange-Bertalot, H. (2011). Diatomeen im Süßwasser-Benthos von Mitteleuropa. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag K.G., Rugell.
Prygiel, J. & Coste, M. (2000). Guide Méthodologique pour la mise en oeuvre de l’Indice Biologique Diatomées. NF T 90-354. Cemagref, Bordeaux.