Field of Science

A Western Rockweed

Rockweed Silvetia compressa, from here.


Silvetia compressa is a species of brown alga found on shorelines on the western coast of North America, from British Columbia to Baja California. It is a member of the wrack family Fucaceae that I covered in an earlier post. Silvetia compressa is found in midtidal habitats, generally higher up on the shoreline than other large seaweeds. Individual thalli can reach a maximum length of about three feet (90 cm) but are often smaller. This is a slow-growing species, so patches of Silvetia are slow to recover from damage due to trampling and other disturbance. Please try to avoid walking on the rockweed!

Thalli of Silvetia compressa are composed of thin strands a few millinetres in width with irregular, dichotomous branching. Strands of the thalli lack a midrib (distinguishing them from some other Fucaceae species found in the same area). The width of the strands and regularity of the branching varies with environmental conditions: for instance, individuals growing in locations with stronger wave action have more robust strands that branch more frequently. As with other Fucaceae, the reproductive structures a produced on swollen branch tips called receptacles, but these receptacles do not become inflated with gases and buoyant like those of other species. The exact size and shape of the receptacles is, again, variable.

In many older references, Silvetia compressa may be referred to as Pelvetia fastigiata. The supposed species 'Fucodium compressum' and 'F. fastigiatum' were originally distinguished on the basis that the latter was smaller than the former with more fastigiate branches (that is, the branches remained subparallel). As indicated above, these characters represent the effects of environmental conditions, not fixed differences (Silva 1996). They were eventually included in the genus Pelvetia, together with the Atlantic species P. canaliculata, on the basis of the thalli without a midrib, and the production of just two eggs from each oogonium in the receptacles. However, later analyses supported the separation of the Atlantic and Pacific species of Pelvetia. Not only did they not form a clade in molecular analyses, the eggs in the oogonia were separated by a horizontal division in the Atlantic species but a longitudinal or oblique division in the Pacific species (Silva et al. 2004). As such, the Pacific Pelvetia were transferred into a new genus Silvetia.

Further taxonomic complications involved subspecific variation in Silvetia compressa. A distinctive form of 'Pelvetia fastigiata' found at Pebble Beach in California's Monterey Bay, with smaller, finer thalli and more abundant, regular branching, was labelled as a separate forma gracilis. Similar individuals were also found on the islands off California's coast. However, when Silva (1996) examined the original type specimen of P. fastigiata, he discovered that it was an individual of this 'gracilis' form, not the more typical larger form. Later, Silva et al. (2004) examined genetic variation within the Silvetia compressa of California and Baja California. They found that the individuals of the offshore islands were indeed genetically distinct from continental individuals. As well as the differences in growth habit, there was also some difference in receptacle shape: the continental form had receptacles that tended to be linear and pointed whereas those of the island form were ellipsoidal and blunt. However, the island form still could not be labelled with either of the 'fastigiata' or 'gracilis' monikers, as individuals from the type locality of Pebble Beach did not align genetically with insular individuals but with other continental forms. As such, yet another name had to be coined for the insular form which now goes by the name of Silvetia compressa ssp. deliquescens. Let's see if it sticks this time.

REFERENCES

Silva, P. C. 1996. California seaweeds collected by the Malaspina expedition, especially Pelvetia (Fucales, Phaeophyceae). Madroño 43 (3): 345–354.

Silva, P. C., F. F. Pedroche, M. E. Chacana, R. Aguilar-Rosa, L. E. Aguilar-Rosa & J. Raum. 2004. Geographic correlation of morphological and molecular variation in Silvetia compressa (Fucaceae, Fucales, Phaeophyceae). Phycologia 43 (2): 204–214.

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