We set the topics for these Nature Net News posts a year in advance. I dropped in this vivid green image and sat wondering what I wanted to share about algae. The very next day, at the UW Arboretum Winter Enrichment Lecture – a series that I regularly attend – Professor Ben Zuckerberg, who was there to present on Birds & Climate Change, started talking about algae. It’s funny – and wonderful – how the universe sometimes speaks to you. Zuckerberg’s bird/climate/algae connection has to do with botulism. His research found that warmer waters in Lake Michigan are creating algae blooms that serve as a perfect low-oxygen habitat for the botulism bacteria. The bacteria then enter the lake food chain, causing paralysis and often death in local waterfowl. He and his colleagues have taken advantage of citizen scientists’ data collection (the AMBLE project Avian Monitoring for Botulism Lakeshore Events) to learn more about when and where these algae blooms and associated bird die-offs occur. You’re likely not surprised to learn that global climate change is a suspected culprit in the increase of occurrences.
Algae certainly gets a bad rap in the news. Not only is it related to Wisconsin waterfowl die-offs, but there’s also this: “Shellfish Industry, Scientists Wrestle with Potentially Deadly Toxic Algae Bloom” (NPR Jan. 4, 2018), “EPA Plan Seeks Cuts in Pollution That Causes Lake Erie Algae” (New York Times Mar. 7, 2018), and “Toxic Algae Problem Plagues Wisconsin Lakes & Streams” (WUWM Aug. 9, 2017). But, scientists have hope for shifting the notoriety of algae away from villain and closer to hero. One scientist in particular – J Craig Venter who helped sequence the human genome – thinks that this organism, which already provides more than a third of atmospheric oxygen, can also be used to sequester CO2, produce hydrocarbons for bio-fuel, and serve as a genetic model for improving agricultural crops. Jonathan Trent, NASA’s Lead Scientist for the OMEGA Project (Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae), believes “floating algae pods” can create “fuel without fossils.” Find out more about how algae just might save the day from Scientific American and TED Talks, respectively – or check out Trent’s 2012 TED Talk below:
Did you know…
Algae is not an organism that fits neatly into one Genus. Algae is instead a general term that describes several species that share common characteristics. They are photosynthetic but lack many land-plant features, including roots, stems, stomata, xylem, and phloem. Algae range from microscopic single celled organisms (like Chlorella which is now storming the health-food scene) to large multi-celled organisms (like giant kelp) that can live singly or in mats or colonies. Most are eukaryotic (nucleus-bearing) with the exception of blue-green algae which is a prokaryotic (nucleus-lacking) cyanobacteria and is thus, placed in the Kingdom Monera. They can live in freshwater or marine environments. Find out more from LiveScience or ThoughtCo.
Algal blooms are caused by a combination of environmental factors, including an influx of nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus), water temperatures above 25°C, and minimal water turbulence. The EPA predicts climate change may “cause harmful algal blooms to occur more often.”
But not all algal blooms are bad: Some scientist now believe that algae are responsible for “kick-starting” life as we now know it with a period of algal “global dominance” about 635 million years ago. This algal bloom “provided the food and energy source that allowed organisms to become big.” Read more at Smithsonian.com.
To Do This Month:
March 15th: Museum Storytime @ UW Geology Museum 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM – Museum storytime is geared toward preschool-aged children and each week features a book, museum specimens and a craft to take home. No reservations required, except for groups larger than 10.
March 17th: Pollinator Friendly Gardening @ UW Arboretum 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM – Explore the life histories of Wisconsin’s native bees and other pollinators and how they fare in our gardens and landscapes. Learn gardening practices that create and enhance pollinator habitat and promote conservation. Indoors, with brief garden walk if weather permits. Instructor: Susan Carpenter, Arboretum native plant gardener. Fee: $30. Register by March 12.
March 17th and 31st: Breakfast with the Birds @ Bethel Horizons 9:00 AM – 11:00 AM – Join naturalist Eric Volden for an entertaining morning of bird watching and bird lore at Bethel Horizons’ bird feeding station. A hearty breakfast will be served with each session as Eric identifies birds coming to the feeders and relates bird feeding information, stories, and recent sightings. Bring binoculars if you have them, and bird stories to share. Cost for the breakfast and program is $10/adult, $6/child. To register, contact Eric at (608) 574-1992 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 18th: Campfire Chat at the Lussier Family Heritage Center 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM – Get to know your Dane County Parks and meet your Park Ranger for dog-oriented, family-friendly activities! Dog permits are required and can be purchased prior to or at this event.
March 25th: Maple Syrup Fest @ Aldo Leopold Nature Center 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM – Celebrate the spring with Maple Syrup Fest—a family-style festival at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center! This family-friendly event offers a blend of indoor and outdoor activities found nowhere else in Madison. Stations throughout ALNC grounds will lead visitors, at their own pace, through the history and science of maple syruping and related activities. Sample maple syrup, maple cream, and enjoy a maple ice cream sundae! It really is a sweet way to kick off spring!
Algae In the Classroom
If you’re interested in exploring the idea of algae becoming a potential energy source with your students, Plant-Science.com has all the resources you need. The BioMara (Sustainable Fuels for Marine Biomass Project) is a research project based out of the UK and Ireland that, along with its algae-as-fuel research, produces materials to help schools understand macro-and micro-algae, and the various ways algae are used. Resources, though UK-focused, include lesson plans and posters.
If you have a subscription to BrainPop you can tag along with Tim and Moby to learn about algae, “including where they sit in the tree of life and what physical characteristics these organisms have.”
Taking a Stake in the Lakes
Even if you don’t live directly on the shores of a lake, you can still have an impact – negative or positive – on the quality of your favorite, nearby body of water. In Madison we are surrounded by lakes and many Nature Net member sites rely on lakes, ponds, and rivers for recreation, education, and exploration. Unnatural and undesirable algae blooms are…just that, undesirable. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are the rapid growth of algae that can cause harm to animals, people, or the local ecology. A HAB can look like foam, scum, or mats on the surface of water and can be different colors. HABs can produce toxins that have caused a variety of illnesses in people and animals.” They suggest avoiding entering water that smells or looks bad as the answer to preventing illness.
Luckily for those of us who do not want to avoid entering the water, many organizations are digging deeper than illness prevention and combating the root causes of HABs. Locally, the Dane County Lakes & Watershed Commission, and the Clean Lakes Alliance are working to educate and activate people to care about and for our lakes. Here are some of their tips, ideas, and suggested activities you and your family can get involved in:
- keep leaves off the street
- conserve water
- preserve shoreline habitat
- join a clean up activity
- learn more about the lakes and what impacts them
- join a water-focused association or friends group
And perhaps just as importantly, get out on the lakes with your children to foster in them a love of water and our natural resources.