While plants ornament the landscape and are very visible at Rocky Mountain National Park, some plants are seldom seen. The tiny floating plants, called algae, 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.
One group of algae, the diatoms, grow even under winter ice. Diatoms have even been reported growing under more than 14 feet of ice in ponds in Antarctica. Scientists studying algae in Rocky Mountain National Park reported 78 different species in one study. Scientists are especially interested in 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 the 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 be read somewhat like tree rings and tell us what the ecosystem was like in the distant past.
As interesting and useful as diatoms are to scientists, they are also very beautiful. When visiting ice covered lakes, ponds, and wetlands in Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter, or watching the water glint in them in the summer, it is intriguing to wonder what interesting plants may be lurking just below the surface.
Last updated: March 31, 2012