Spring comes slowly up this way …*

I took a few minutes out on my trip to Upper Teesdale to stop at Wolsingham and collect one of my regular samples from the River Wear.  Back in March, I commented on the absence of Ulothrix zonata, which is a common feature of the upper reaches of rivers such as the Wear in early Spring (see “The mystery of the alga that wasn’t there …”).   I put this down to the unusually wet and cold weather that we had been experiencing and this was, to some extent, confirmed by finding prolific growths of Ulothrix zonata in late April in Croasdale Beck (see “That’s funny …”).   Everything seems to be happening a little later than usual this year.   So I should not have been that surprised to find lush growths of green algae growing on the bed of the river when I waded out to find some stones from which to sample.

These growths, however, turned out to be Stigeoclonium tenue, not Ulothrix zonata (see “A day out in Weardale”): it is often hard to be absolutely sure about the identity of an alga in the field and, in this case, both can form conspicuous bright green growths that are slimy to the touch.   Did I miss the Ulothrix zonata bloom in the River Wear this year?   Maybe.   Looking back at my records from May 2009 I see that I recorded quite a lot of narrow Phormidium filaments then but none were apparent in this sample.   That taxon thrived throughout the summer, so perhaps, again, its absence is also a consequence of the unusual weather.

Growths of Stigeoclonium tenue on a cobble in the River Wear at Wolsingham, May 2018.  

The photograph illustrates some of the problems that ecologists face: the distribution of algae such as Ulothrix zonata and Stigeoclonium zonata is often very patchy: there is rarely a homogeneous cover and, often, these growths are most prolific on the larger, more stable stones.   I talked about this in Our Patchwork Heritage; the difference now is that the patchiness is exhibited by different groups of algae, rather than variation within a single group.   Ironically, the patchiness is easier to record with the naked eye than by our usual method of sampling attached algae using toothbrushes.   That’s partly because we tend to sample from smaller substrata (the ones that we can pick up and move!) but also because of the complications involved in getting a representative sample.   We have experimented with stratified sampling approaches – including some stones with green algae, for example, in proportion to their representation on the stream bed – but that still means that we have to make an initial survey to estimate the proportions of different types of growth.

Under the microscope, therefore, the algal community looks very different.   There are fewer green cells and more yellow-brown diatom cells, these dominated by Achnanthidium minutissimum, elegant curved cells of Hannaea arcus and some Navicula lanceolata, still hanging on from its winter peak.   The patterns I described in The mystery of the alga that wasn’t there … are still apparent although the timings are all slightly adrift.

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

The schematic view below tries to capture this spatial heterogeneity.  On the left hand side I have depicted the edge of one of the patches of Stigeoclonium.   Healthy populations of Stigeoclonium do no support large populations of epiphytes, probably as a result of the mucilage that this alga produces.  My diagram also speculates that the populations of Gomphonema olivaceum-type cells and Ulnaria ulna may be living in the shadow of these larger algal growths, as neither is well adapted to the fast current speeds on more exposed rock surfaces.  Finally, on the right of the image, there are cells of Achnanthidium minutissimum, small fast-growing cells that can cope with both fast currents and grazing.   I have not included all of the taxa I could see under the microscope, partly because of the space available.  There is no Hannaea arcus or Navicula lanceolata and I have also left out the chain of Diatoma cells that you can see on the right hand side of the view down the microscope.

The speckled background in the image of the view down the microscope is, by the way, a mass of tiny bacteria, all jigging around due to Brownian motion.  The sample had sat around in the warm boot of the car for a few hours after collection so I cannot be sure that these were quite as abundant at the time of collection as they were when I came to examine it.  However, some people have commented on the absence of bacteria – known to be very abundant in stream biofilms – from my pictures, so these serve as a salutary reminder of an extra dimension that really needs to be incorporated into my next images.

Schematic view of the biofilm from the River Wear at Wolsingham, May 2018.  a. Stigeoclonium tenue; b. Gomphonema olivaceum complex; c. Ulnaria ulna; d. Meridion circulare; e. Achnanthidium minutissimum.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).

* Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel (1816)



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.