They are responsible for the planet’s oxygen and regulate the climate. They feed and support billions of organisms both on land and in the oceans. However, they can be harmful if left unchecked. Today we explore the weird and random world of algae.
Some are poisonous to dogs.
The blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, can be toxic to our canine friends. These algae thrive in warm waters over 75 degrees Fahrenheit and commonly bloom in the summer months, though the season has been expanding with climate change. The algae are not only poisonous to dogs, but can also harm livestock, wildlife, and humans. Toxicity can cause seizures, respiratory and liver failure, and even death in its victims.
Not all blue-green algae are harmful.
There is a type of blue green algae known as spirulina, which has many potential health benefits. This alga can serve as an anti-inflammatory. It also may lower cholesterol, fight cancer, reduce blood pressure, aid with anemia, and control blood sugar. Some studies suggest that it also helps with allergies. That being said, there is still more study that needs to be done on spirulina to determine its full benefits.
Diatoms are very important to paleoecology.
Diatoms are a large group of algae that have a glassy-type structure under a microscope. This allows them to fossilize and they can be preserved for millions of years. The study of fossilized diatoms and those in lake core samples help paleoecologists determine the changing climate on Earth over time. There tend to be fewer diatoms during warmer periods, and some scientists project a decrease in diatom populations over the next several decades with anthropogenic climate change.
Eutrophication is a harmful effect.
When a body of water receives too many nutrients, primarily phosphorous and nitrogen, eutrophication starts. Algae that feed on the nutrients explode, spreading throughout the water and complete taking over. They can become so concentrated that all oxygen in the water is consumed and a dead zone is created. An extreme version of this process is seen in the American South. Midwestern farming practices have led to nutrients washing down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, where a massive seasonal dead zone occurs and grows every year.
Some algae bloom red.
This can make for a rather bloody looking scene at a lake or streamside. Perhaps the most notorious version of a red algal bloom comes with the red tide. These extreme oceanic blooms are often referred to as “harmful algal blooms” or HABs. Red tide creates toxins that harm and kill marine life, poison shellfish, and create an anoxic situation similar to that described above with eutrophication.
The whole ecosystem of Mono Lake depends on them.
Yes, it’s algae that hold up the entire life system in the eastern Sierra Nevada’s Mono Lake. The algae grow on the mineral deposits at the bottom of the lake and float freely on the saline waters. This, in turn, feed the brine shrimp and alkali flies, who become food for millions of birds who pass through the area in a given year. As a result, Mono Lake is an important migratory and breeding stop for many species. Mono Lake supports the second largest California seagull rookery in the country. All this happens because of simple algae.
The singular for the word is alga.
That’s right, algae is actually the plural of alga. The definition of alga is a plant-like organism that lives primarily in water and falls into many categories. Aside from the blue-green algae we already discussed, there is green, yellow-green, brown, and red, among others.
Land plants evolved from them.
About half a billion years ago, ancestors of the Zygnematophyceae began to evolve and started growing on dry land. Evolution continued and the former algae began to grow into land plants. Soon the planet was occupied by plant life and this paved the way for the evolution of animal life on Earth. So, like Mono Lake, algae are responsible for life on Earth as we know it today.
Lichens work with them.
Lichens are sponge-like and tend to retain moisture, no matter how dry an area they grow. This provides an excellent habitat for certain species of algae. In return, the algae provide food for the lichens in the form of photosynthetically fixed carbon and sugars. This is what is known as a natural symbiotic relationship.
They have many uses in the modern world.
Algae have many uses to humans of today, so many that I can’t even begin to list them all here. They are used to bind food and produce specific food products, both for humans and livestock. Algae also become dyes and colorants, fertilizer, bioplastics, pharmaceuticals, and fuels. They are currently being studied as a means of pollution control due to their carbon fixing properties. The industrial growth and production of algae is known as algaculture.
During a field trip to Crater Lake long ago, I marveled at the pink snow I saw beside the road. I was told this was known as watermelon snow, a type of alga that produced a pink pigment to protect itself from sunlight. Though watermelon snow smells remotely like the fruit it’s named for, it’s not a good idea to eat it. As one student on the field trip put it, “It’ll give you weeks of beaver fever.” Also known as severe and miserable diarrhea. Watermelon snow is most common in the spring and apparently when said snow melts it can create bloody looking puddles. The pink coloration can also increase the melt rate of glaciers if there is enough growth. Algae are certainly fascinating and surprisingly powerful life forms.
United States Geological Survey- www.usgs.gov
Dartmouth University- www.dartmouth.edu
Mono Lake Committee- www.monolake.org
Merriam Webster- www.merriam-webster.com
Frontiers In- www.frontiersin.org
British Council- www.britishcouncil.org