Algae in a stone forest

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A change in location from the previous post: this one is being written on the roof terrace of a guest house in Kunming, in Yunnan Province, China, whilst sipping a cup of the local pu’er tea.   I’m in China with my family visiting my eldest son who works in Chengdu, a sprawling metropolis of 11 million people in Sichuan Province, and have escaped to the warmer climate and more sedate environs of Kunming (only 6 million people) for a few days.  We’ll then move on to Dali (a mere village, by comparison, with less than half a million people) before returning to Chengdu.

From Kunming we travelled about 120 km southeast to Shílín, the site of a strange Karst phenomenon known as the “stone forest”, a collection of upright pillars of limestone often with other limestone blocks perched precariously on top.   In geomorphological terms, we are looking at a limestone pavement on a huge scale, but with substantial erosion of the “grykes” (the gaps between the “clints”).   Geologically, it is a little more complicated than that, with the Permian limestone being later overlain by basalt which was subsequently eroded away to leave a red soil.  However, that is enough to give you some context for what follows.

The photograph at the top of the post gives you some idea of what the stone forest looks like, and also some idea of the crowds to be expected at mainstream tourist attractions in China.  At times, the mass of people and, in particular, the overlapping amplified commentaries from tour guides, dressed in the costumes of the local Sani ethnic minority, made the experience almost unbearable.  But then, as is often the case, you turn a corner, the hubbub dies away, and you are able to enjoy the ethereal landscapes almost undisturbed.  In our case, however, we turned a corner too many, found ourselves outside the officially-sanctioned tourist beat and were unceremoniously ejected by an officious security guard.

Once we had talked our way back into the park through the main entrance, using Ed’s Mandarin skills, the park was noticeably quieter.   Most of the organised tours squeeze the stone forest and a local cave network into the same trip so the morning crowds had been hustled back onto their coaches, and the whole experience in the park was much more pleasant.   Walking through the Major Stone Forest gives you an ants-eye experience of living in a limestone pavement habitat, with the clints towering above you and only occasional glimpses of sunshine.   The park authorities have provided a concrete path and steps to lead you through but it is, at times, an arduous trek with some narrow and low gaps through which to squeeze.   This, in turn, lets you get up close to the limestone and, in my case, gets the phycological antennae twitching …

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The Major Stone Forest at Shílín from the inside.   The photo at the top of the post shows the Major Stone Forest from the main public viewing area.

The limestone from which the stone forest is made is largely slate-grey in colour, rather than the creamy beige that I normally associate with this rock.   Only after reading one of the interpretation boards in the park did the penny drop, and I realised that I, and thousands of other tourists, had each spent 130 RNB to stare at algae.   After my brush with officialdom in the morning I was not in the mood to scrape at the rocks to collect a sample but am guessing we are looking at the Cyanobacterium Gloeocapsa alpina or something similar (see “The mysteries of Clapham Junction …”).   We were visiting the park close to the end of the long dry season but for the next few months the climate here will be much damper, creating a more conducive environment for these microorganisms to grow.

A few of the rock faces, particularly those associated with seepages, had multicolour streaks, with the grey supplemented with pinks and greens.  The former may well be other Cyanobacteria (possibly Schizothrix) and the greens could be Apatococcus, Desmococcus or a relative (see “Little round green things …”).  There were also a few orange-red patches of Trentepohlia (see “Fake tans in the Yorkshire Dales”).   All of these are forms are familiar to me from the UK and, whilst it would be rash to assume that the species were identical to those I find back home, the genera are generally cosmopolitan, so some extrapolation can be permitted.

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Algal crusts on rocks in the Major Stone Forest at Shílín, April 2019. The left hand image shows a mixture of Cyanobacteria and (possibly) green algae on a vertical surface associated with a seepage; the right hand image shows Heather photographing a growth of Trentepohlia nearby.

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Trentepohlia growths inin the Major Stone Forest at Shílín, April 2019.  The picture frame spans about 10 centimetres. Photograph: Heather Kelly.

I did hunt around for some verification for these names but it is not possible to access Google Scholar in China without a VPN.  I am limited to whatever Bing throws up, and have not yet been able to find any papers on the algae of Shílín.  What I did find, during these searches, however, was an article about the world’s largest Haematococus farm, which is very close to here.   I’ve described Haematococcus in earlier posts (see “An encounter with a green alga that is red”) and mentioned that it was the source of the food colouring astaxanthin.   The combination of the limestone geology, warm weather and the huge market for food additives in China makes this possible.  Travelling in China with two vegetarians makes me realise that, even in this enormous, technocratic country, the market for natural products is growing.

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