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Are Algae Mass Murderers? A new theory suggests that algae might be to blame for the Earth's greatest mass extinctions.
Algae seem harmless enough. These precursors to plants thrive throughout the world's waters. But these single-celled plants have global consequences. We can thank them for oxygen in the atmosphere, oil in the lithosphere as well as dead zones in the oceans and now even a dead horse in France.
That's right. The fumes from decomposing algae on a French beach killed a horse and rendered its rider unconscious this past summer. And poisonous tides caused by algal blooms make eating shellfish dicey at times as well as causing mass die-offs of fish, birds and even sea-going mammals. Plus, according to a new theory, that might just be a small taste of the plants' killing ability.
James Castle and John Rodgers of Clemson University think that such algal blooms—triggered by warming water or an increase in nutrients—might be behind the five largest mass extinctions in Earth's history.
Beware the killer algae!
Salt-loving algae wipe out fish in Appalachian stream
A salt-loving alga that killed tens of millions of fish in Texas has struck for the first time in an Appalachian stream that flows along the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Prymnesium parvum or “golden algae” caused the sudden death of thousands of fish, mussels, and salamanders in early September along some 30 miles of Dunkard Creek. University and government scientists fear the disaster could presage further kills in the region. Streams at risk due to high concentrations of total dissolved solids (TDS) include portions of the northern branch of the Potomac River and 20 other streams in West Virginia, according to state scientists. Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky also have many vulnerable rivers and streams, according to U.S. EPA scientists.
First identified in the 1930s, P. parvum is a microscopic flagellated organism that caused massive fish kills in the Sea of Galilee and in Israeli fish farms in the 1950s. Toxic blooms have also occurred in brackish waters in Europe as far north as Scandinavia and in China. The algae thrive in naturally brackish water typical of rivers and reservoirs in East Texas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. Since the first documented fish kill in Texas in 1985, when more than 100,000 fish died in the Pecos River, the organism has killed more than 18 million fish valued at more than $7 million. In 2001, P. parvum killed the entire year’s production of striped bass in Texas’s Dundee State Fish Hatchery.
P. parvum’s numbers usually remain low. But sometimes it rapidly reproduces with blooms that give the affected water a golden color. In Texas, blooms usually occur during the cooler months when the alga seems to have an advantage over other algae that grow best in warm waters.
The exact conditions that bring on an algal bloom are unknown, “That’s the $64,000 question,” says biologist Carmelo Tomas at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “Studies have looked at nitrogen, vitamins, and trace metals, but these present a confusing story,” he adds.
Researchers Identify What Makes Deadly Algae More Toxic
Baylor University researchers have identified a key component that increases the toxicity of golden algae (Prymnesium parvum), which kills millions of fish in the southern U.S. every year.
The Baylor study is the first to determine what makes the deadly golden algae more potent in inland waters. The results have been published the journal Toxicon.
While golden algae is primarily a coastal species, it has been found in Texas rivers and lakes, including Lake Whitney and Lake Waco in Central Texas, and Lake Granbury in North Texas. Experts understand that several environmental factors influence toxin production, but now new research from Baylor scientists shows that once the toxin is released into the water, its propensity to cause harm to the environment is influenced by the lake's pH level. In fact, the toxins become more potent at higher pH, which the Baylor researchers say is interesting because blooms may actually increase pH.
Foam from ocean algae bloom killing thousands of birds
A slimy foam churning up from the ocean has killed thousands seabirds and washed many others ashore, stripped of their waterproofing and struggling for life.
The birds have been clobbered by an unusual algae bloom stretching from the northern Oregon coast to the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.
"This is huge," said Julia Parrish, a marine biologist and professor at the University of Washington who leads a seabird monitoring group. "It's the largest mortality event of its kind on the West Coast that we know of."
The culprit is a single-cell algae or phytoplankton called Akashiwo sanguinea. Though the algae has multiplied off the coast of California before, killing hundreds of seabirds, the phenomenon has not been seen in Oregon and Washington, and has never occurred on the West Coast to this extent, Parrish said.
"We're getting counts of up to a million cells per liter of water," she said. "Think about that. That's pretty dense."
Toxin producing "killer" algae wiped off the dinosaurs, claims new study
According to US geologist James Castle, of Clemson University, South Carolina, fossil records indicate mass extinction but "they occurred more gradually than if caused solely by a catastrophic event."
Castle has an explanation. According to the geologist, blue-green algae, which produces poisons and depletes oxygen, was present in sufficient quantities to kill off many creatures on land or in the sea.
Ecotoxicologist John H. Rodgers has endorsed Castle's view and feels that current environmental conditions show significant similarity to times when previous mass extinctions occurred.
The researchers, who analysed the five largest mass extinctions in Earth's history, claim that each time a large die off occurred, they found a spike in the number of fossil algae mats called stromatolites strewn around the planet.
"If you go through theories of mass extinctions, there are always some unanswered questions," Castle said. "For example, an impact - how does that cause species to go extinct? Is it climate change, dust in the atmosphere? It's probably not going to kill off all these species on its own."
But as the nutrient-rich fallout from the disaster lands in the water, it becomes food for algae. They explode in population, releasing chemicals that can act as anything from skin irritants to potent neurotoxins. Plants on land can pick up the compounds in their roots, and pass them on to herbivorous animals.