While flowering plants ornament the landscape and are very visible at Rocky Mountain National Park, some plants are seldom seen. Algae, which float in lakes, wetlands, and ponds in the park are virtually unnoticeable. They are very important, however, because they generate oxygen and provide food for larger aquatic (water living) animals.
Scientists are especially interested in one group of algae, the diatoms, because they are excellent indicators of ecosystem conditions. By studying the kinds of diatoms present, scientists can determine if acid rain is falling, if there are heavy metals in the water, if a lake is very productive, and many other things about the park's ecosystems.
Another bonus to diatoms is that their cell walls are made out of silica (just like window glass) and they can remain in the layers of sediments at the bottom of lakes for thousands of years. These sediment layers can tell us what the ecosystem was like in the distant past.