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New Species of Microorganism Discovered

by Laurie Anderson and Carole VanSickle



A certain Lake Superior resident has long been perceived as an intercontinental drifter that just happened to set up house there, along with others of its ilk. But it turns out that Hannaea superiorensis, a photosynthetic algae previously grouped with another group of river-loving diatoms — microscopic, single-celled organisms that are ubiquitous in water bodies everywhere — is a homegrown local.

“It’s like finding a new kind of tree on a street you’ve walked down a hundred times,” said Rebecca Bixby, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Ecology. It was Bixby who first recognized this diatom as unique, and she worked with Mark Edlund, associate scientist at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and Eugene Stoermer, a University of Michigan professor of natural resources and the environment, to describe the new species. The researchers heralded the homecoming of H. superiorensis in the November issue of the journal Diatom Research.

H. superiorensis is boomerang shaped and nearly double the length of any other diatoms in its former classification, Bixby said.

“It’s not unusual for tropical rainforests and remote islands to yield native-but-undiscovered species, but to discover one in well-studied, inland shores is an event,” she said.

The creature can also be highly useful. By comparing it to diatoms in the other Great Lakes, scientists can analyze shifts in aquatic dynamics and adaptation processes. Because Lake Superior has been significantly less polluted and overfished than the other four Great Lakes, learning how H. superiorensis interacts with its surroundings may shed light on how the situations in all five lakes have changed over the years. It may also provide clues to repairing the damage.

”We learned a hard lesson in the Great Lakes about how vulnerable native species can be,” Edlund said. This “new” native may provide means for even further comparison and instruction.

For more information contact Rebecca Bixby at


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