All Kinds of Diatoms
March 10th, 2009
ABOARD THE RVIB N. B. PALMER, ON THE SOUTHERN OCEAN– After 4 days in transit we arrived at Clarence Island near the South Shetlands. It is too windy to test our new instruments here. So we turn northeast and after 8 more hours we arrive at the C18A iceberg. This large iceberg was located by satellite images. C18A originated from the Ross Sea Ice Shelf half a continent away. Since 2003 it has traveled hundreds of miles around Antarctica. It entered the Weddell Sea 2 years ago, and it is now on its way north.
At Clarence Island we saw the first phytoplankton bloom of our cruise. Chaetoceros neglectus was the most abundant species. Diatoms are unicellular plants with a silica cell wall that come in many different geometric forms, thickness and sometimes with appendages. The wall has two units called valves that fit together like two halves of a pillbox, the smaller lower valve fitting inside the larger one.
Some are round, like in Thalassiosira sp. or Coscinodiscus sp. Others are elongated, like Fragilariopsis sp. Each cell can be seen from the top or the sides, making it sometimes difficult to recognize them. There are lightly silicified species, hard to see at the microscope, like Chaetoceros neglectus. The thickly silicified species are thick, brilliant and easily seen. Many species either central or pennate form chains that look like a necklace, or sometimes a ribbon, with each cell looking like a bead or a scale.
Why the diversity of form? Diatoms need to float in the ocean to live close to the surface, where there is light. Inside the cell there is a vacuole (looking almost like a balloon) where they can store chemicals that help them float. Increasing their wall surface also helps in flotation, thus the formation of chains. All plants survive if the grazers do not decimate them. Being large, as in forming part of a long chain, or having spines help them also to avoid grazing. Diatoms are the preferred food of the Antarctic krill, a common crustacean in these waters, and only the very large species can avoid being eaten.
I am sure we will keep seeing many different diatoms in this cruise and we will be taking pictures of them to share. As it is autumn here, many species are starting to become scarce, present special forms, or spores that help them spend the long winter. We are especially interested in seeing if some forms prefer to live close to the iceberg or if they are somehow concentrating a distance way, affected by melting ice.