Field of Science

Naviculi, Navicula

Diatoms are one of the most prominent groups of micro-algae in aquatic environments, perhaps more abundant than any other major group of aquatic organisms except bacteria. As such, they are a key component in many of the environmental processes that we ultimately depend on: food for aquatic animals, producers of oxygen, et cetera et cetera. To those who study them, they are also known for the intricate architecture of their silica walls. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, this architecture forms a key component of diatom classification. One of the most diverse groups of diatoms recognised has been the mega-genus Navicula.

Light microscope view of Navicula tripunctata, copyright Kristian Peters.

Historically, over one thousand species have been assigned to Navicula. Though more recent authors have restricted the name to a smaller, more tightly defined concept than before, it still contains some 200 or so species (Bruder & Medlin 2008). Species assigned to this genus are an elongate diamond or pill shape. Though the term 'navicula' can be translated from Latin as a small boat, and this is often assumed to be the name's origin, this is incorrect. Its original author, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Geneviève Marcellin Bory de Saint-Vincent, derived the name from the French term for a weaver's spindle (navette de tisserand; Cox 1999). A long fissure, the raphe, runs down the midline of each valve of the diatom wall; the diatom moves by extruding secretions through the raphe. In Navicula, the raphe is largely straight though it may be hooked at the ends of the valve. Perpendicular to or radiating from the raphe are striae formed of rows of openings (areolae); in Navicula, these areolae are more or less elongate with their long axes perpendicular to the line of the stria. In some species historically included in Navicula, the striae may be biseriate with two rows of areolae. Some authors have proposed recognising species with biseriate striae as a distinct genus Hippodonta. Cox (1999) disputed whether this distinction was enough to warrant a separate genus but Bruder & Medlin (2008) conducted a molecular phylogenetic analysis of naviculoid diatoms in which the one Hippodonta species included was placed as the sister taxon to Navicula sensu stricto. In distinguishing the genus Sellaphora from Navicula, Mann (1989) also identified a number of cytoplasmic features characteristic of Navicula sensu stricto, such as the possession of two distinct plastids per cell with rod-like pyrenoids.

SEM view of Navicula dobrinatemniskovae, from Van de Vijver et al. (2011). Scale bar = 1 µm.

Ecologically, the majority of species of Navicula sensu stricto (about 150 species) are found in freshwater environments (Bruder & Medlin 2008). In temperate and tropical regions, they are a diverse element of benthic diatom communities, but they are less predominant in coldwater habitats (Van de Vijver et al. 2011). They are most characteristic of meso- to eutrophic lakes and permanent waterways and Van de Vijver et al. (2011) therefore suggested that they might be less suited for the damp soils and temporary pools that dominate freshwater habitats in the frozen South. Nevertheless, these authors still managed to identify five previously unknown species from just this inhospitable region, giving some indication of what still remains to be discovered of this already diverse genus.


Bruder, K., & L. K. Medlin. 2008. Morphological and molecular investigations of naviculoid diatoms. III. Hippodonta and Navicula s. s. Diatom Research 23 (2): 331–347.

Cox, E. J. 1999. Studies on the diatom genus Navicula Bory. VIII. Variation in valve morphology in relation to the generic diagnosis based on Navicula tripunctata (O. F. Müller) Bory. Diatom Research 14 (2): 207–237.

Mann, D. G. 1989. The diatom genus Sellaphora: separation from Navicula. British Phycological Journal 24 (1): 1–20.

Van de Vijver, B., R. Zidarova, M. Sterken, E. Verleyen, M. de Haan, W. Vyverman, F. Hinz & K. Sabbe. 2011. Revision of the genus Navicula s.s. (Bacillariophyceae) in inland waters of the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic with the description of five new species. Phycologia 50 (3): 281–297.

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