The Algal World: More Diatoms


Round Loch of Glenhead, watercolor by Martyn Kelly.

I have a bit more to add on diatoms; there just wasn’t enough space in my last post. I have already mentioned diatomaceous earth, composed of the remains of ancient diatoms. It is used for polishing because of the abrasiveness of the glassy shells made primarily of silica. The tiny, hollow shells have a great deal of surface area making them effective filtering agents as well. The earth can also be employed as an insecticide because the abrasiveness damages the waxy covering on many insects. Perhaps the greatest impact of diatoms on our life style today is that their internal remains are a major component of fuel oil, which was created from deposits of many kinds of plant material including the aquatic variety. In fact, the diatom contribution was so significant that some researchers today are considering diatoms as a form of future biofuel, in part because, among phytoplankton, a higher proportion of their fatty acids are monounsaturated making them a better starting material for biofuel.

One of the best and most engaging ways to learn more about diatoms and about how they are used to evaluate aquatic environments is to read the posts on Martyn Kelly’s Of Microscopes and Monsters blog. Kelly heads a consultancy firm in Britain that specializes in studying freshwater ecosystems, and diatoms are key to this research. He is an expert in the field but he writes very appealingly for nonspecialists. He has even produced a book on the subject that is available for a free download from his website. He describes what a diatom population tells about water quality, and how this changes with season and location. Kelly has been doing this work long enough that he can also discuss how things have changed—for better or worse—over time. He travels widely on business so there are posts on his experiences studying diatoms and other phytoplankton in many locations; there have been recent posts from India.

I should note that Kelly can definitely be opinionated in his posts, which is not a bad thing. He provides a sense of the political and economic issues surrounding diatoms—they are not only about beauty. As an independent consultant, he is a little freer to speak his mind, and as a Briton facing exit from the European Union, he has some interesting things to say that what this might or might not mean for environmental regulations in the United Kingdom. Kelly also looks at the local level, at such issues as how a new housing development is likely to affect nearby lakes and streams and what can be done to mitigate the changes. So there are many reasons why his writing is worth checking out.

What makes Kelly’s website particularly interesting is that he is also an artist, who returned to school to take up art seriously. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he chose to focus on diatoms, because as I said in my first post on algae, they are particularly appealing aesthetically, and this is especially true of diatoms. In his effort to communicate about aquatic environments, Kelly sometimes includes his watercolors in posts. They are beautiful and portray the atmosphere of an underwater world. He includes not only diatoms but other planktonic organisms that would be associated with them in a particular body of water. Some of these works are also included in his book. I think it’s particularly powerful when a biologist is also an artist, because they bring knowledge and years of observation to their art. Kelly presents diatoms in a very different way than does Haeckel, whose portrayals are greatly enlarged, with all the structural details laid out for the viewer as static, structural monuments. Kelly’s diatoms, on the other hand, do not have as many details, but they are shown as immersed in their environment rather than separate from it, and there is a sense of movement. I see these two approaches as complementary and definitely worth studying. We are very fortunate that both are freely available on the web.

Kelly has written on other algal art available on the web, including Andrew McKeown’s cast-iron sculptures of diatoms at East Shore Village on the Durham coast in Britain. They are in a park with a view of the ocean and are tangible expressions of these tiny creatures, something a child could play on and experience in a very different way than they could the real thing. At the other end of the size spectrum, there is a genre, if you can call it that, of arranging diatoms into patterns on microscope slides, a form of tiny art. This has been going on since the 19th century, but still persists today. One major exponent was Carl Strüwe, a German photographer with an expertise in photomicroscopy. He created stunning images, many of diatoms artfully arranged; there was an exhibit of his work held last year called Microcosmos. He was not alone; there was a small group of devotees of this art in the Victorian era, mirroring the broad interest in both microscopy and aquatic organisms. Nor is the practice dead. Klaus Kemp is a British microscopist who creates complex symmetrical arrangements of diatoms. There is a fascinating video of his work and how he creates them. Some people might consider this scientific kitsch, but I see is as one more way to lure nonscientists into the world of science through wonder. They may be initially attracted by the symmetry, become more interested when they learn that the pattern is created under a microscope, and are then hooked by the intricacy and beauty of each tiny element: how can creatures so small be so complex?

Free for All

Fritillaria Capsules

Fritillaria Capsules by Laurence Hill

At the moment, I’m reading a book called Of Microscopes and Monsters by Martyn Kelly, who also has a blog with the same name.  It’s about his work as an environmental consultant in Britain. Kelly focuses on algae, and particularly on diatoms as indicators of freshwater quality.  This book, which is self-published, is freely available on Kelly’s website.  I’ve downloaded it and printed it out primarily because it is full of images, many of them watercolor illustrations of algae done by Kelly himself–he also has training in art.

By the quality of the layout and of the content, I would assume that Kelly tried to find a publisher.  On the one hand, I am sorry he didn’t because his book deserves a broader audience since he does a wonderful job of explaining not only why algae are so crucial in understanding water pollution, but also how many variables are involved in trying to measure water quality.  This book is aimed at the general reader and is crystal clear, yet doesn’t shun the complexities of the issues involved.

Having said all this, I am obviously glad that Kelly was generous enough to offer a free download.  This is the kind of intellectual generosity for which I have great respect–and gratitude.  Another person of the same ilk is Laurence Hill, who has done an amazing job of documenting all species of the flowering plant genus Fritillaria.  He uses digital photography and has spent years growing the species and then photographing the entire plant (roots included) as well as plant parts such as the capsules, seeds, bulbs, and flowers.  He has then taken the individual parts and arranged them so their varied sizes and forms can be compared across species.  He has done the same for the plants as a whole:  a lineup according to their evolutionary relationships, based not only on morphological data but DNA sequence information as well.  The resulting composite image is available in a downloadable booklet on Hill’s Icones Fritillaria website.   Facts sheets and images of the various species as well as comparison sheets of pods, etc. are also downloadable–the entire site is open source–definitely a model for plant information sites and visually beautiful as well.  As a final note, the booklet is related to a display of a large copy of the composite image that was on display at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  It took up an entire wall, and was obviously the best way to appreciate the extent of Hill’s accomplishment.

A final example of generosity on the web is not quite as spectacular as the first two, but it’s still very helpful.  Timber Press’s Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy makes the argument that filling a garden with native plants helps to restore habitats because the plants then attract and support animal species native to the area, especially insects.  Some of these, in turn, assist in keeping invasive insect species under control.  Timber Press obviously wants the book to sell and sees tantalizing the reader as a marketing approach so it has made two chapters freely available on the web.  Not only is the text readable and informative, but the photographs are very pleasing to the eye.

A Microscopic Landscape

Martyn Kelly’s blog, “Of Microscopes and Monsters,” is a wonderful blend of biology, art, and ecological commentary.  Kelly is a British ecologist who specializes in measuring water quality using microscopic plants such as diatoms.  He also has art training which serves him well in presenting the world of tiny plants that he calls home.  He has used his watercolors to illustrate a book that has the same name as his blog and is available online as a free download.

In a recent post, Kelly cites an artwork by Henry Underhill, an amateur microscopist.  The illustration appears in Kenneth Clark’s book, Landscape into Art.  It is a pastel of microscopic organisms done on black paper.  Clark writes that “the microscope and telescope have so greatly enlarged the range of our vision . . .  that by our new standards of measurement the most extensive landscape is practically the same size as the hole through which the burrowing ant escapes from our sight. We know that every form we perceive is made up of smaller and yet smaller forms, each with a character foreign to our experience,” and adds that anyone seeing the Underhill work in the original “is immediately reminded of Klee and Miro.”

This relationship of microscopic life and landscape is something I’ve never considered, yet it is obvious why Kelly was drawn to this quote and to this pastel.  Many of his works are really landscapes of the microscopic life of freshwater rivers and lakes in England.  He has taken the world of the microscope slide and created richer renditions of it in watercolor.