Biogeography of Freshwater Algae


Freshwater algae belong to numerous evolutionary lineages and the flora of any aquatic system has many species from some or all of these lineages. These algae have a range in morphology from single cells, flagellates, colonies and unbranched or branched filaments. They inhabit flowing and still waters in the regions where they can be attached (periphyton) or free‐floating (phytoplankton). In terms of biogeography, some algae are generalists having a cosmopolitan distribution; others are specialists either restricted to a particular habitat or geographic region and a third category are invaders from either marine or other freshwater habitats. Typically, the physiology of the alga will determine to which category an alga belongs. Freshwater algae may be distributed by wind, terrestrial and aquatic animals, and humans either intentionally or unintentionally. Our understanding of the biogeography of freshwater algae is somewhat limited and further research is needed.

Key Concepts:

  • Freshwater algae are diverse in their evolutionary relationships, their morphology (shape and size) and habitats they occupy.

  • Freshwater algae can be ‘generalists’ having a more cosmopolitan distribution, ‘specialists’ being restricted either in geography or habitat or ‘invaders’ from either the marine system or from freshwater typically outside their historic range.

  • Generalists tend to be able to tolerate a broad range in physical and chemical environments.

  • Specialists tend to have more specific physiological requirements or are not as readily dispersed.

  • Invaders from the marine system are able to survive in moderately low salinity environments.

  • The invasiveness of some freshwater algae has been attributed to nutrient pollution and potential climate change.

  • Freshwater algae can be dispersed via animals (aquatic and terrestrial), water, wind and human vectors such as ship ballast and fishing waders.

Keywords: algae; biogeography; cyanobacteria; lakes; periphyton; phytoplankton; streams

Figure 1.

Representative periphyton, macroalgae and phytoplankton: (a) The chain‐forming diatom, Melosira, is typically part of the periphyton in spring. (b) The diatom, Cymbella is a common periphyton genus. (c) The red alga, Batrachospermum is a conspicuous member of the macroalgae. Photo courtesy of B. deRivier. © B. deRivier. (d) The green alga, Cladophora is very common in streams, lakes and ponds, sometimes clogging nutrient‐rich streams. (e) The green alga Draparnaldia is most abundant during the spring in streams. (f) When ponds start to dry, the green alga Spirogyra undergoes sexual reproduction called conjugation to form zygotes shown here. (g) The green alga, Desmodesmus is a common member of the phytoplankton. (h) Euglena, a flagellate with a conspicuous red eyespot is often found in nutrient‐rich ponds. (i) The diatom, Asterionella has a high surface‐to‐volume ratio to remain suspended in the phytoplankton.

Figure 2.

Cluster of stream macroalgal floras in each biome. BF, boreal forest; CP, coastal plain; DE, deciduous forest; HH, eastern hemlock‐hardwood forest; TU, tundra; TR, tropical rain forest and WC, western coniferous forest. Reproduced with permission from Sheath and Cole . © John Wiley and Sons.



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Further Reading

Smol JP (2008) Species invasions, biomanipuations, and extripations. In: Pollution of Lakes and Rivers: A Paleoenvironmental Perspective, 2nd edn. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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How to Cite close
Sheath, Robert G, and Vis, Morgan L(Oct 2013) Biogeography of Freshwater Algae. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003279.pub3]