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May 9th, 2018

Diatoms of North America gets a website refresh

Researchers sample prairie soils for diatoms. Photo by Joanna Gauthier.

A new version of the community-based website Diatoms of North America launched today at Previously known as Diatoms of the United States, the freely accessible site is an online guide to diatoms that helps researchers identify almost 900 species.

Diatoms are single-celled algae that live in glass houses—their cell walls are made of transparent silica. Diatoms live in the water of ponds, streams, lakes, and oceans worldwide, collectively producing 25-40 percent of the oxygen we breathe and feeding aquatic ecosystems with complex molecules. Scientists can look at the composition of communities of diatoms to understand the health of current aquatic ecosystems, and to reconstruct the water quality and temperature of past environments. Government agencies use diatoms to evaluate water quality and check for compliance with the Clean Water Act.

The Diatoms of North America website includes a section that helps researchers identify diatoms by shape.

The website is useful for analysts and scientists who need to correctly identify diatoms, often while sitting in front of a microscope looking at samples, and for scientists and managers that need to look up information associated with diatom species, like the conditions they grow in. Diatom information can be searched by shape, genus, or species, and each entry is illustrated with clear images.

The site also includes a section called “What are diatoms?” that describes diatoms’ biology and importance and shares a number of fascinating facts.

Diatoms of North America is a community effort, with more than 80 analysts, biologists, ecologists, students, curators, and taxonomists contributing species information and identification. Each contribution is peer reviewed by an editorial review board for scientific merit before it is added to the site. The US Environmental Protection Agency, US Geological Survey, the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, and other organizations provided funding and support for the website.

"There is no way that this project could be undertaken by a single lab, or even a few labs," says INSTAAR research scientist Sarah Spaulding, who chairs the editorial review board of Diatoms of North America and led the redesign effort. "It's great to have the effort of so many people come together into a useful resource. The project represents collaboration at its finest."

The new version of the site offers more attractive, easily navigated sections; an updated back end; and improvements in searching and browsing to support better identification.