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Diatoms are a major group of microalgae, and are among the most common types of phytoplankton. Diatoms are unicellular, although they can form colonies in the shape of filaments or ribbons (e.g. Fragilaria), fans (e.g. Meridion), zigzags (e.g. Tabellaria), or stars (e.g. Asterionella). The first diatom formally described in scientific literature, the colonial Bacillaria paradoxa, was found in 1783 by Danish naturalist Otto Friedrich Müller. Diatoms are producers within the food chain. A unique feature of diatom cells is that they are enclosed within a cell wall made of silica (hydrated silicon dioxide) called a frustule. These frustules show a wide diversity in form, but are usually almost bilaterally symmetrical, hence the group name. The symmetry is not perfect since one of the valves is slightly larger than the other, allowing one valve to fit inside the edge of the other. These shells are used by humans as diatomaceous earth, also known as diatomite. Fossil evidence suggests that they originated during, or before, the early Jurassic period. Only male gametes of centric diatoms are capable of movement by means of flagella. Diatom communities are a popular tool for monitoring environmental conditions, past and present, and are commonly used in studies of water quality.
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