Having read multiple news accounts of domoic acid (DA) events up and down the Pacific coast of the U.S., I decided to do my own informal survey of the culprit that makes DA. Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin that is produced by some (but not all) species of the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia during a plankton bloom. It is ingested by filter-feeding animals such as mussels and anchovies and gets passed to higher trophic levels as these animals are themselves preyed upon. The filter feeders are thought to be unaffected by the DA they ingest, but due to bioaccumulation the toxin occurs in higher concentrations in the tissues of the predators. Humans can be affected by DA also, when they eat contaminated shellfish, for example. This is why coastal states advise seafood foragers not to collect and eat bivalves (clams, mussels, oysters) when DA is detected in the water. When humans are sickened by domoic acid, the affliction is called Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP).
I had originally hoped to collect a sample from a boat over deeper water, but when those plans failed to materialize I did the best I could on my own: I went out to the end of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and threw the net from there. As soon as I hauled the net back up I could smell the diatoms. Yes, diatoms have a smell, as does just about anything when you concentrate it enough. The diatom smell is rich and organic, but not at all unpleasant.
This is what the sample looked like:
All those clear needle-like things are chains of Pseudo-nitzschia cells. When they are reproducing quickly (a.k.a. “blooming”) the cells remain connected by their tips (see below). Longer chains indicate favorable conditions for asexual reproduction in diatoms; I saw some chains that were 12+ cells long. The small whitish things zooming around are barnacle nauplii. Obviously barnacles are having lots of sex right now.
Pseudo-nitzschia is a pennate diatom, which simply means that the cells are pen- or boat-shaped. Some of the pennate diatoms have a raphe, or slit-like opening on the frustule through which a tiny bit of protoplasm can be extruded. These diatoms, of which Pseudo-nitzschia is one, don’t swim but can actually scoot around on surfaces. Don’t believe me? Then watch this long chain of Pseudos move back and forth like a train on tracks.
Here’s a still shot at higher magnification:
See how the individual cells remain connected to each other by their overlapping tips? Each of the cells is about 75 µm long and contains two roughly rectangular chloroplasts that are golden brown in color.
Pseudo-nitzschia wasn’t the only diatom in the sample, either. I saw surprising numbers of Coscinodiscus, a genus of centric diatoms, ranging in size from 160-250 µm in diameter. Coscinodiscus frustules are beautifully sculptured, making the cells look like fancy buttons.
That little bleb at about 10:00 on the larger diatom is a dinoflagellate, Peridinium or Protoperidinium, that came along for the ride. There is also a chain of Pseudos making a cameo appearance in the bottom of the photo.
The other unusual diatom in the sample was Chaetoceros. This diatom has a name that hints at the morphology of the cells: “chaet-” is Greek for “spine” or “bristle”. Indeed, the cells of Chaetoceros are box-shaped and have four long spines that link adjacent cells together to form chains.
The intriguing question that came to my mind was “Why now?” Around here I’ve grown accustomed to a typical succession of phytoplankton in Monterey Bay, with diatoms (especially Chaetoceros) blooming in the spring and early summer, corresponding to our usual upwelling season, then giving way to dinoflagellates in the late summer and fall when upwelling abates. And yes, we did have a major Pseudo-nitzschia bloom back in April and May. Diatoms bloom in response to high levels of nutrients, especially nitrate, that occur when upwelling returns nutrients to surface waters. We did have a few weeks of decent upwelling in the spring. Then El Niño started to build and we went through several weeks of warm, clear water when diatoms were pretty much absent and we saw phytoplankters such as silicoflagellates and coccolithophores, which can thrive in waters that are too nutrient-depleted for diatoms.
And now the diatoms are back. Chlorophyll levels in nearshore waters are high right now all along the central California coast. These data are from CeNCOOS, an ocean observing system:
Assuming that the chlorophyll being measured is in the cells of Pseudo-nitzschia and other diatoms, it appears that we’re having a return to springtime conditions. Bait fish are back in the Bay, and following them are dolphins and birds. I would dearly love to do some whale watching this fall; we may have another spectacular season for humpback whales. Whatever the cause for this apparent late-season rebirth, this autumn is shaping up to be interesting.