Botanist discovers rare species; 1st for U.S., and 2nd for North America

Edgar E. Webber, Prof. Emeritus Natural Sciences, Keuka College

A number of years ago, I was studying the microscopic and macroscopic algae in a Massachusetts salt marsh ecosystem. These studies were prompted by a search of marine botanical literature which revealed the absence of such work.

The saltmarshes near Ipswich and Gloucester, Mass. where Prof. Webber made his discovery.

Like all New England states, Massachusetts has an abundance of saltmarshes. Yet, no year-round detailed field and laboratory research had been done at that time. Sites in Ipswich and Gloucester, Mass. were chosen for my pioneer program. Salt marshes are coastal land areas alternately covered and exposed by tidal waters.

As an example of my research, let me describe one of special interest. Common to these ecosystems is a microscopic alga named Vaucheria. To the naked eye, Vaucheria plants form green to black-green “tufts” on marine mud and peat. Despite their prevalence, only four species of Vaucheria were known in Massachusetts salt marshes before 1953. Therefore, I collected Vaucheria samples every two weeks for three and a half years.

These samples were returned to Keuka College and placed in petri dishes to which a growth medium was added. These cultures then were grown in the lab at appropriate conditions. All cultures were examined microscopically each week. By so doing, I discovered a species of Vaucheria, V. subsimplex, previously unknown in the United States.

Further, my find was only the second citation of this species in North America. Correspondence with Vaucheria experts in this country and overseas, confirmed this discovery. You never know what an “unknown” ecosystem will yield. Specimens of this alga have been deposited in the Farlow Herbarium, Harvard University.

Overall, it is important to know the plant life characteristic of any ecosystem, because all energy is derived ultimately from the plants of that environment. In turn, plant life supports animal life. Additionally, the ecological health of any ecosystem can have economic ramifications.