The beauty of (snowflakes) microscopic algae

Ah, the snowflake: symbol of short winter days, crisp frosty mornings, Carol singing under the stars and the Christmas season…

However, this is not a snowflake:

bicosoeca

Hilda Canter-Lund, Bicosoeca, 1995, Freshwater Biological Association, http://www.environmentdata.org/archive/fbaia:3216

 

It is a photograph of the mass development of the flagellate protozoan Bicosoeca on Asterionella. Astrionella is a genus of pennate freshwater diatoms, which are frequently found in star shaped colonies of individuals, and therefore look remarkably like snowflakes. Diatoms are a major group of algae, and when we think of algae, we often think of seaweeds, algal blooms, and the slimy, slippery plants that render walking in a stream in our bare feet treacherous.

And are algae plants anyway? There are some algal species that can act both as plants and as animals at the same time.

Algae can be quite beautiful, especially seen up close through a microscope. The Victorians certainly thought so and collected algae, pressed on herbarium sheets, and under slides. Victorian microscopists created artful arrangements of diatoms that were sold as miniature curiosities, beautiful patterns invisible to the naked eye that would come to life under a microscope. Today, Klaus Kemp is the only living practitioner of that singular art form, which displays nature in a structured and ordered way.

diatoms

Another snowflake? Klaus Kemp, Diatoms, 1995, Freshwater Biological Association, http://www.environmentdata.org/archive/fbaia:3041

 

By contrast, Hilda Canter-Lund captured the quintessential beauty of algae in its natural state. Canter-Lund (1922-2007) worked at the Freshwater Biological Association on the shores of Windermere, and studied fungal parasites, especially Chytrids. In 1949, she married fellow scientist and algologist John Lund who also worked at the FBA. Algae were the hosts for Hilda’s organisms, and the Lunds therefore worked together on Astrionella Formosa and other diatoms which dominated the spring phytoplankton of Windermere.

asterionella_004

Hilda Canter-Lund, Asterionella, 1995, Freshwater Biological Association, http://www.environmentdata.org/archive/fbaia:3065

 

Hilda Canter-Lund is best known for her remarkable photographs of freshwater algae, which bring out the underappreciated but astonishing diversity and beauty of form to be found in these organisms. In 1995, a collection of these photographs was published in a book entitled Freshwater Algae. Their microscopic world explored, with a text written by her husband.

micrasterias_003

Hilda Canter-Lund, Micrasterias, 1995, Freshwater Biological Association, http://www.environmentdata.org/archive/fbaia:2778

 

Her photographs continues to inspire scientists and artists: The Hilda Canter-Lund Annual Photography Award is awarded every year by the British Phycological Society in recognition of the technical ability and aesthetic quality she brought to the study of algae. Most recently, artist Christine Hurford exhibited her art inspired from drawings and photographs of algae from the Freshwater Biological Association at Wray Castle, on Windermere (see http://www.chrishurford.co.uk/gallery_704334.html).

 

Key facts on algae:

  • Algae are at the base of the food chain;
  • They are found in marine and freshwaters, anywhere that has moisture;
  • There are hundreds of thousands of species, new ones are continually being identified;
  • They are many different groups, such as the Bacillariophyta (diatoms) and Cyanophyta (blue greens);
  • Some forms are toxic but some are edible; some have commercial uses;
  • They range in size from single cells to massive kelps.

 

References

Canter-Lund, H. and Lund J., Freshwater Algae. Their microscopic world explored, Bristol, 1995.

 

Webpage links and embedded video links:

You can see a short film about Klaus Kemp and his diatom arrangements here: https://vimeo.com/90160649

Many of Hilda Canter-Lund’s photographs are available on the Freshwater Biological Association’s digital archive: http://www.environmentdata.org/archive/fbaia:pshc_collection

More on algae: http://www.algaebase.org

This blog was originally published as part of the Advent Botany 2016 blog, hosted by the Culham Research Group: http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/crg/

 

Isabelle Charmantier, Information Scientist

 

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