The Algal World: So Much More

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Fucus evanescens specimen from the US National Herbarium, Smithsonian Institution

I have devoted the last two posts to diatoms and before that to the 19th-century interest in seaweeds in general. But there are many other aspects of algae deserving attention, for example, the onslaught of forces causing damage to ocean ecosystems and thus to algae including a documented decrease in phytoplankton over the last century. At the same time, excessive algal blooms have become more common such as several on Lake Erie, including one that covered an area the size of New York City. Also, a number of macroalgae collected in the 19th century have not been found again in the 20th. In order to have reference specimens readily available to monitor aquatic life, the National Science Foundation has funded a major project called the Macroalgal Herbarium Consortium. Forty-nine US institutions have digitized their macroalgae collections, and all these specimens are now available through one website, the Macroalgal Herbarium Portal. Kathy Ann Miller, a curator of algae at the herbarium of the University of California, Berkeley explains the importance of the collection she manages in a short video. She makes the point that this is a living collection in the sense that she and her students frequently go on collecting trips along the California coast, sometimes finding as many as 400 species in an area. At the moment the Berkeley collection includes more than half of all known macroalgae species.

The Steere Herbarium at New York Botanical Garden also has an impressive collection, and now thanks to the Macroalgal Portal we are all able to access these specimens on the web. This doesn’t do us any good if we don’t know much about algae. But the web can help with this problem. The Smithsonian, also with a significant macroalgal collection, hosts a website on seaweed research with links to other sites, many dealing with species in other parts of the world. If you want to look at some beautiful specimens, and get basic information on them, the natural history museum in Wales also has a good site. The Natural History Museum’s AlgaeVision portal combines basic information on algae with links to its online collection. So once you’ve read about algae, you can investigate many of the different types, and if you just want to feast your eyes on some beautiful specimens you can’t do better than to go to Seaweed Collections Online. I hope that by this time, I have whetted your appetite for these water-loving plants, of all sizes, from the unicellular to giant kelp. Next time you are near a body of water, particularly at low tide at a beach, seek out some specimens. They may not look very attractive and are likely to be slimy to the touch, but persist and maybe stick a few in a plastic bag. When you get home, put them in water, slip a piece of heavy white paper under one of them, and slowly lift it out of the water, keeping it horizontal. See what you’ve got. Your specimen might look surprisingly good. If so, cover it with wax paper, place it between two pieces of board or cardboard and let it dry. Needless to say, if you need help with all this, it’s easy to find on the web. Perhaps you will be in the vanguard of a new era of interest in these organisms.

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