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Newly Discovered Algae Makes Its Home In CT

Add a new name to the list of species native to Connecticut. Scientists have discovered an algae that only exists in one part of the Farmington River in Barkhamsted. It’s called Didymosphenia hullii. But if that name’s too much of a mouthful, it’s also known by its shorthand: rock snot.

“It is pretty nasty looking, actually,” says Diba Khan-Bureau, who is a professor at Three Rivers Community College, but performed the work at the lab of Louise Lewis, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. “It looks like a rat’s tail, or cotton balls that are just floating in the water,” she says as she pulls a gooey brown strand off a rock in the river.

Fishermen first noticed the algae in 2011. Last month Khan-Bureau confirmed it as a previously undiscovered species. It is believed that this part of the Farmington River is the only place in the world it grows.

Khan-Bureau says there’s something special about this part of the river that makes Didymosphenia Hulli flourish here: it’s downstream from a reservoir that pumps out cold water and lacks nutrients.

“Didymo prefers cold waters,” she says. “Didymo also prefers regulated waters, waters that are controlled upstream by a dam. And that’s what this reservoir actually has: a dam that controls the flow.”

Didymosphenia hullii is what’s called a diatom -- a single-celled “micro-algae” that’s different from the stuff we’re used to seeing on the surface of the water. Hullii has a cousin -- Didymosphenia geminata, which has spread from New Zealand into the U.S., including the Pacific Northwest, Vermont, New Hampshire and -- most recently -- Connecticut’s neighbor, Massachusetts.

It spreads on rocks and chokes off the nutrients, setting off a chain reaction that can destroy river habitats.

“It caused a lot of economic problems because you didn’t have fishermen able to fish,” Khan-Bureau says. “And we were concerned that could happen here.”

So far, she says there’s no reason to think Hullii will spread out of its perfectly-placed river home -- unless, she says, it were to spread to similarly cold-watered rivers, possibly on a fisherman’s boot. Like so many things, she says, this rock snot-friendly habitat is the result of humans interfering with nature.

“When we regulate a flow of a river, it changes the ecosystem,” she says. “We wouldn’t see this kind of bloom or this kind of growth, and we see it now.”

Khan-Bureau's findings were published in the European Journal of Phycology this month. Since discovering the micro-algae, she's analyzed its DNA and is now working on studying a region of its genome.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.