Researching Algae, the Unsung Heroes of Aquatic Food Webs

by Luca Marazzi*

Why is it important to study algae? To start with, algae produce ~ 50% of the oxygen on planet Earth, they are food for small and large animals that in turn are eaten by people, but they also recycle nutrients and absorb CO2 from the air; by existing and doing their own thing, these microorganisms provide these so called ecosystem services to human beings (Fig. 1). Moreover, as algae reproduce fast and are often adapted to specific environmental conditions, understanding how many species of algae, and which ones, live where and why give us cues as to the health of aquatic ecosystems, such as rivers, lakes, and wetlands. 

Fig. 1. Simplified scheme of the role of algae in food webs (from my Ph.D. Thesis).

* Dr. Luca Marazzi is a freshwater ecologist working in Dr. Evelyn Gaiser’s research group in the School of Environment, Arts and Society at Florida International University. His main interest is how biodiversity, ecology, and distribution of algae in subtropical wetlands change with hydrology, nutrient concentrations and habitat. He curates the “Diatom of the month” blog series aimed to raise awareness on these algae, key primary producers and indicators of environmental change.

How did I get to do research on algae? For my Environmental Science MSc dissertation project, I worked in the northern Italy’s Alps studying Passerine bird migration, then my career path took me to office-based research on air quality and climate change. Wanting to go back to field research, I got a Ph.D. opportunity at University College London to study the biodiversity and biomass of microscopic algae in the Okavango Delta, a subject and a place I didn’t know much about, apart from biology courses and natural science readings. Between 2009 and 2010, I spent ~3 months in Maun (NW Botswana), to carry out the necessary sampling in this incredible, remote, and near pristine wetland in the middle of the Kalahari; another ~ 70 months were needed to master and apply taxonomy and microscope skills, conduct statistical analyses, read, think, and write my Thesis, as well as working to support my graduate studies.
Fast-forward 8+ years, here I am in sunny Miami, some 8,000 km away from the cold and misty mountain pass where I did my MSc research and 12,200 km from the Okavango, to work on another amazing wetland, the Everglades, as part of a Postdoctoral Associate contract in Dr. Evelyn’s Gaiser laboratory at Florida International University (FIU). After a few months at FIU putting together a database for the Comprehensive Everglades Research Plan Monitoring and Assessment Plan (CERP-MAP) and planning my publications, I decided, with my postdoc and Ph.D. advisors, to undertake an ambitious comparative study of patterns and drivers of species richness and life-history strategies in the Okavango and Everglades. We estimated that, the Okavango hosts, on average, ~80 species of algae in each sampling site, the Everglades have ‘only’ ~ 20 (Fig. 2). This is likely due to phosphorus scarcity, habitat fragmentation due to water diversion schemes, and nutrient pollution in the Everglades whereas the Okavango is still a near pristine wetland. Moreover, Florida is a long peninsula, while the Zambezi ecoregion in Africa has been historically well connected so that organisms may be able to better disperse to and from this wetland than in the Everglades. For more information, our paper “Algal richness and life-history strategies are influenced by hydrology and phosphorus in two major subtropical wetlands” is published in this month's issue of Freshwater Biology.

Fig. 2. Map of estimated algal richness and photos from the air: Okavango (above) and Everglades (below). Okavango (site averages); UPH= Upper Panhandle; LPH=Lower Panhandle; XAK=Xakanaxa; BOR=Boro; SAN=Santantadibe. Everglades; LKO=Lake Okeechobee; LOX=Loxahatchee; Out_ENP=Outside of Everglades National Park (including the Water Conservation Areas, WCA 2 and 3); ENP=Everglades National Park.

Although, in the Okavango, the flooding cycles have a stronger influence on species richness, as compared to phosphorus in the Everglades, maintaining and restoring the natural hydrology in these wetlands is critical for the preservation of algal communities, and thus for the health of food webs. Due to their outstanding geographic features and biodiversity, both these wetlands are protected as World Heritage sites, and are included in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, and so it is critical to keep monitoring these ecosystems

What’s next?
I am currently researching how algal dominance changes with nutrients and hydrology in the Everglades, which is relevant for freshwater flow and water quality restoration scenarios. I am also trying to create opportunities for comparative research in other subtropical wetlands. Last September, I visited the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and, with other 800 experts, attended the excellent 10th INTECOL Wetlands conference in Changshu. I presented my comparative work and co-organized a workshop on future directions in wetlands studies, strengthened previous connections and made new ones with various colleagues working in Asia, South America and Australia. In June, other FIU scholars and I are planning to present our work at the next Society of Wetland Scientists’ meeting in Puerto Rico (“Celebrating Wetland Diversity Across the Landscape: Mountains to Mangroves”), where we aim to foster new collaborations with ecologists conducting research on wetland ecosystems and food webs in Central and South America, and beyond. Moreover, Dr. Gaiser, Dr. Barry H. Rosen (USGS) and I co-organized a special session on how algae / periphyton mats may respond to different nutrient and hydrology scenarios in the Everglades for the Greater Everglades Ecosystem Restoration (GEER 2017) conference. As wetlands are facing unprecedented anthropogenic impacts due to, for example, land use change, water diversion, and global warming, such collaborations among scientists, and between us and policy makers, are crucial to foster and inform sustainable management practices and strong conservation and restoration activities.

Fig. 3. (from top to bottom) In front of the conference venue with Drs. Wolfgang Junk (Federal University of Mato Grosso, Brazil), Max Finlayson (Charles Sturt University, Australia) and Xuhui Dong (Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Denmark and Chinese Academy of Sciences); our International Network for Next Generation Ecologists workshop; two pictures from one of the conference fieldtrips to Shanghu Lake.


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