The psychology of phycology

Images: John Huisman

When people presume you have incorrectly spelt your occupation because they've never heard of it before, you have to wonder if you are doing the rarest job in the world. But phycologists John and Fred love what they do and would not want to be ‘psychologists' for all the algae in the world (which is around 7000 species, just in case you're wondering).

Phycology (meaning seaweed in Greek) is the scientific study of algae.
John Huisman, from Murdoch University and the Western Australian Herbarium, and Fred Gurgel, from the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Herbarium, are here to collect and record all the algae they can find around the area, and hopefully spot some new species too.
"We're trying to visit as many habitats as possible – lagoons, reef slopes, drop offs…we're trying to maximise the number of species we can collect," John said.
"Our aim is to document what is here. If you went to a National Park in Victoria for example, you'd be disappointed if you didn't know what was growing there. This is essentially a marine park – but nobody really knows what is here," he said.
Algae are diverse groups of plant-like organisms, ranging from microscopic forms to metre-long seaweeds.

John and Fred say that algae play a significant role in the sea; that when you look at a coral reef, a lot of the structure is held together by algae.
"A lot of the sediment in coral reefs is often from algae as well – it's not always bits of coral. There's a lot of calcified algae that breaks up," John said.

Images: John Huisman

"It's the association between coral and algae that builds the structure that we see underwater…if corals can be considered bricks, algae would be the cement that holds it together," Fred said.

Zooxanthellae algae form symbiotic relationships with the coral. The algae and corals have a fragile relationship that is affected by, for example, higher sea surface temperature caused by global warming.
"The symbiotic algae leaves because it gets too warm and the balance is disturbed, causing the coral bleaching effect. The coral can recover if it re-associates with the algae," John said.
The scientists are expecting to collect at least 200 species in the area, not including all the pieces covered with epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) that will only be discovered once the researchers look at their findings under the microscope.
"What is unique in the tropics….is when you can take a one centimetre square area you can find four or five species, all growing on top of each other, compared to the temperate areas where you find plants that are one metre tall like those huge kelps," Fred said.
The scientists say that Lizard Island is "a perfect, pristine spot" to go looking for seaweed but you have to dig around to find the different species here, as opposed to temperate climates where it floats around in large pieces.
To store the algae, they press the specimens and dry them out in a herbarium press – this simple process preserves the specimens for hundreds of years.
Both scientists are passionate about their area of study, and were inspired by different scientific leaders. John became interested in the field because of an inspiring lecturer at university and Fred by watching Jacques Cousteau on television.
"I've never been interested in things that are common, such as whales and turtles. I wanted to study something different – and phycology matched that," Fred said.
"The algae are an undiscovered treasure trove of beautiful plants," John said.