Tag Archives: Bluegreen Algae

Bluegreen “Algae,”   Pink Flamingos, Red Tides, (and Nonpolluting Buses)


Not many plants have a more diversified story than Cyanobacteria.  We know them in Florida as villians of “toxic algal bloom” news, featured even in the gubernatorial race.    That horror story is not my focus today.  Google will unleash that mess abundantly already.  Quickly, however, toxic “algae” blooms are not limited to the Florida Active Adult Lifestyle.  Ask the residents of Toledo who drink Lake Erie, or what’s left  of my home town, Wheeling, W.Va. where “a green paint spill” reported in the Ohio River turned out to be Cyanobacteria.  The problem is global, making it tough to point the finger of blame too ardently at any particular political entity, or demanding simplistic politicized “do something.”


Now hear this!…bluegreen “algae” are not algae.  They are Cyanobacteria. Even though the term “algae” is vague, Cyanobacteria are no more algae than I am.  They are large photosynthetic bacteria.

Cyanobacteria or similar paleo-germs are contenders to be the oldest life on Earth.  The globe is about 4.5 billion years old, with Cyanobacterial evidence extending back over 3.5 billion years.   Contrast that with humans, here for maybe 2 million years.    So then Cyanos are some 2000 times older than we are.  We curse them for polluting rivers, yet, looking back a few billenia, who kickstarted  the biological world with original oxygen?

BGA from fish tankCLOSE2

And even better, who makes the Flamingos pink?   With variation from species to species and from place to place, in a general sense Flamingo pink coloration owes mostly to pigments from Cyanobacteria, including the genus Spirulina on sale now in a health food store as a dietary aid.   I wonder if Spirulina over-consumption will give a ruddy glow.  (Just kidding.)

What about those pink Roseate Spoonbillls John and I witnessed today in Riverbend Park? They are more carnivorous than Flamingos, and their rosy pigments come from the little creatures they catch in their spoons, although ultimately the pink ink comes from plankton, presumably Cyanobacteria and perhaps also true Algae.  In the Spoonbill’s case, the path to pink may be complex.

CLICK HERE for quick peek at some Spoonbill Action!

Cyanobacteria have astounding grit.   They grow on trees, on rocks, on my back porch, on wet concrete, and mostly in salt and fresh water, where we may try to suppress them with shade.  Shade doesn’t work; some species cope by using cells called akinetes (AY-kuh-neats) able to sink and wait out bad times.

Many Cyanobacteria, especially planktonic species, including the Microcystis in toxic blooms,   have “air bladders.”  When the cell is near the sunny water surface photosynthesis there depletes buoyant carbon dioxide from the bladder and creates sinky heavy carbohydrates.  The cell thus loses buoyancy and sinks to deeper waters where there is less sun and more nutrients, such as phosphorus.   Down in the dark, the cell stocks up on nutrients, burns its heavy carbohydrates, generates carbon dioxide back into the bladder, and rises anew.  The yo-yo cycle is daily.


Lyngbya, with sheath

Fast growers demand much nitrogen.   Problem is, most plants can’t use nitrogen gas from the air.   Good thing we have Cyanobacteria with specialized cells called heterocysts to convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonium fertilizer to their own benefit, to the benefit of plants that share their soil,  such as in Florida wet prairies, and to the benefit of many symbionts.

Cyanobacteria have more symbiotic relationships than you can shake an alga at.  They hook up with:  true algae, cycads, diatoms, ferns (including the floating fern Azolla used to fertilizer rice), flowering plants, fungi, hornworts, liverworts, marine worms, mosses (including Sphagnum), radiolarians, sea squirts, sponges by the dozen, and more, including partnerships awaiting discovery.  Oddly enough, if we shift our attention momentarily to the Red Tides befouling the beaches, those little agents of destruction are Dinoflagellate Algae, and guess what, Dinoflagellates and Cyanobacteria are known to have symbiotic relationships.   Every Cyanobacterial symbiosis has a story, but enough is enough for now.

Yet permit me one little example, the Southern-Hemisphere flowering plant genus Gunnera is unique so far as is known, having cyanobacteria living inside the host’s cells.   This growth-promoting intimacy is of interest in a hungry world, not merely because some Gunneras are food, but conceivably the little internal fertilizer generators could be extended to other crop plants.

Now for the surprise ending.  Not all Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic.  Recently in Spain some  turned up 2000 feet underground.   They get their energy from hydrogen just like a fuel cell.  Just think, the most primitive “plants”  of the deep past are demonstrating the most advanced energy form we know.


Photo by Donna Rogers


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Bluegreen Algae, Cyanobacteria

Hey I’m no expert on cyanobacteria, but exploring nature, peeping through microscopes, and teaching botany, they crop up.   Having the amazing ability to type words into Google and to read the results makes me a qualified Internet pundit! I self-declare a Ph.D. in cyanobacteriology.

Pundits love to define terms.   Algae and so-called bluegreen “algae” are a point of vocabularial confusion apparently beyond the comprehension of newscasters.   A complicating factor is that “algae” is a tough term to define, more descriptive of a lifestyle than of biological relationship.   A grab bag of simply constructed non-flowering water-dwellers. That is a license to use a term loosely.   Yet there is another way to see it.  Bacteria are more crisply defined.  Bacteria (and Archaea) are profoundly different from all other living things, right down to their basic biochemistry.   For vocabulary lovers they are prokaryotes as opposed to the eukaryotic algae. The bluegreen “algae” are bacteria, cyanobacteria.

algae mat in canal

Cyanobacteria crop up in disparate contexts:

  1. As symbionts, the main “botany classroom” role. Cyanobacteria are “good guys” as the right species in the right roles. Many cycads have “coralloid roots” poking aboveground looking pathological but actually inhabited by beneficial, symbiotic, photosynthetic, nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria.   (Nitrogen-fixers convert atmospheric nitrogen to “fertilizer.”)  If you bust apart the floating fern Azolla…lots in South Florida…it has cyanobacteria folded into its leaves, making it a rice paddy fertilizer.  Cyanobacteria can inhabit the traps of carnivorous bladderworts and turn up inside hollow-water-holding cells in sphagnum moss.   The “alga” in some (cyano)lichens can be a cyanobacterium.
  2. Nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria living freely, or perhaps not completely free, in the dirt and in hydric soils bring nitrogen to the earth.   During wet weather, great green globs of cyanobacteria jelly rise into prominence on the soil surface.
  3. On wet surfaces. Sometimes before I powerwash the patio, it is interesting to scrape the stains and see under the microscope who it is:   fungus?  green alga?  cyanobacteria?   Often the last-mentioned looking like dark pain on concrete and stones.
  4. In canals, lakes, and rivers. Summer in Florida, and “algae” in the news again! True algae, cyanobacteria, aquatic weeds, associated microbes and creatures, red tides, and dead zones are all part of the evil syndrome relating to our over-fertilized, over-nutrient-enriched, over-hyped Florida active adult lifestyle.   We’re a wet state, not that these problems are unique to Florida, and natural aquatic systems did not evolve dealing with all the nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients humanity puts in the water.   Natural ecosystems evolved in a balance with “normal” nutrient levels, and when the levels skyrocket, some lifeforms suffer, while others benefit to the point of trouble.


Nostoc far

Rising from the wet earth


Nostoc microscope

Same as above, microscope view.

A windowsill experiment to see this is to put pondwater in four soda bottles.  In one bottle put no fertilizer,  and then increasing amounts in all the others.  One drop in one, two drops in the next, and so forth.   Wait a month.  A harmful algal bloom right before your eyes!

eutrophication - Copy

How many sources of nutrient enrichment can you think of?  Organic decay, sewage, septic systems,  manure,  biosolids,  fertilizers.  Twenty-some million Floridians and tourists generate oodles of sewage.  Treatment does not remove all the nutrients, even passage through artificial wetlands.    One way to shed nutrient-loaded sewage treatment water is as reclaimed irrigation water,  inviting turf and ornamentals to take up the nutrients,  and those nutrients are back into the ecosystem.

Agriculture comes up in the news about the polluted Lake Okeechobee system:  manure, fertilizers, backpumping.   And then there are biosolids, treated sewage sludge spread onto the earth.

As anyone who watches the news would know, releasing nutrient-enriched waters from Lake Okeechobee  causes unwanted aquatic life where the water goes: unnatural weed infestations in the Everglades and harmful algal/cyanobacterial blooms along the rivers draining the lake, extending into the sea.  That unwanted growth, especially the cyanobacteria “algae,” make dangerous toxins.

There are plenty of targets for the finger of blame, and authorities from whom to demand action.   No need to repeat the usual list of suspects.  I would not want to be any of them, because cures are not obvious, nor without downsides, and as Pogo croaks from the polluted swamp, the enemy is us.  Florida was never meant to host a gazillion people.

concrete by wall

Many stains on rocks and concrete are cyanobacteria.

Which sources of trouble can we control?   Ample room for argument, but most controls will be tweaks, details, adjustments, NIMBY, and redirections.   How do you diminish sewage nutrients, agriculture, and too much rain in Lake Okeechobee (restore more natural outflow?)?    Curtail Florida development?   Heresy!    Seems to many observers, and recall my amateur status with no data, one actionable point might be limiting residential fertilizer applications, which might mean we don’t all need a big sprawling St. Augustine lawn.

Canal with algae


It isn’t just the Lake Okeechobee system of course.   This summer the eutrophic canals and ponds suddenly have smelly floating mats of green.       Close examination of a floating mat is eye-opening.   Tried it yesterday in a stagnant canal in Jupiter, speaking over over-development.

Algae mat microscope

The mat from canal yesterday, dominated by Cyanobacteria (the striated filaments).

The mat is a tapestry dominated by filamentous cyanobacteria (marked by their cross-striations) interwoven with filamentous algae, varied single-celled algae and alga-like organisms, wriggling animalcules, and decaying globs of organic matter.    Those decaying globs sink, stink, and take up oxygen as they go.

CLICK for a 40 second flyover.

One of the abundant filamentous ones is called Oscillatoria.  It wiggles like some sort of mud-dwelling worm.  CLICK to see the wiggle (about 40 seconds).

This may be an artifact of my limited experience, but that experience so far finds unicellular (sometimes clinging into clusters) cyanobacteria in the St. Lucie River, with the filamentous types (strings of rectangular or circular cells) in the floating mats on canals.


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