Remarkable algae shapes found in the microcosmos

The micro-cosmos, a world we only truly started to explore in the past few decades. If you're looking for complexity in simplicity, you're in the right place. So, there are way more shapes out there, and I mean, WAY more. In this top 10, I just picked a scope for you to get a good idea. In some other articles, we will dig deeper into the different shapes we can find when we have a powerful microscope. But what is the use for artists, you may wonder? I think we can take two lessons out of it. 1: Less really is more, and 2: just look at the complexity of these very simple organisms that stand at the very base of our food chain. It's a source of inspiration and something to fall back on when you want to create something really special with your art.

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, specializing in wildlife and creature designs. I love to share my passion for nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

Table of Contents (Click to collapse)

What is the microcosmos

The microcosmos, what is it? The answer is simple, but also literally a bit blurry. It’s anything we can’t really see in detail with our naked eye. Depending on how and when you look at it. The microcosmos to us is a world on it’s own. And even though quite a few of the organisms in this microcosmos are large enough to see with the naked eye, they’re still too small for us to take in their details. Others are so extremely tiny that we need the best equipment out there to be able to actually see them, while some others, like algae, can occur in such large quantities that we can see them from space.

This all means that there is much we don’t know yet. The expectation is that 99,999% of the species out there aren’t even discovered yet. How wonderful and freaky at the same time is that? The microcosmos consists out of bacteria, algae, viruses and more. It’s even more than likely that, when life is discovered on other planets, it’s gonna be microscopic. Why? Because that’s how life starts out. It starts simple, it starts small, until it evolves into something else. They quickly become specialists of their environment exactly because they are so simple and reproduce quickly, Many things found in the micro-cosmos are extremophiles: Species that adapt to very extreme living conditions. Like places without air, extreme heat, extreme cold, high sulfur concentrations, etc. In other words: If you want to find the extremes of what’s possible in our world: Look at the microcosmos!

What are we seeing through the microscope?

By Alexander Klepnev - Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64827084
Different kinds of algae
Image by: Alexander Klepnev

A large version of a small thing is the simple answer, but most of the time it’s actually a flattened version of the microcosmos. This is because the microscopes that are used, are so extremely sensitive, that it’s very hard to get a sharp image from an organism that’s freely floating or swimming around in 3 dimensions. Thus, samples of soil or water. or other materials are flattened into a petri dish or a slide before the microscope comes into play. But that’s not all! There are different kinds of lenses, but also different lightsources, even outside our own colorspectrum that are used to make these organisms visible to the naked eye.

But we’re not here to discuss the details on how microscopes work. It is worth nothing though that all these organisms may look very different in different images, just because of the light and equipment that’s used. What we focus on here are the shapes, because that’s the most interesting thing to us in an artistic setting.

The difference between form and shape

If English is your native language, you probably understand the difference between form and shape, right? If you’re not, this might be an interesting paragraph to read, as some languages like Dutch have only one word for both form and shape. Which is really confusing when you’re not aware of the true meaning of the words ‘form’ and ‘shape’.
Form: The object seen in a 3D world.
Shape: The object seen in a flattened 2D world.

Shapes in your creature designs

As the microcosmos is mostly viewed in 2D, this is what we will focus on in this article. Shapes are very important when it comes to your art. Even more so in creature designs. You probably know how triangular face on a character tend to translate to danger and mischief. These shapes are usually used to communicate danger. While round shapes are associated with cuteness, babies, pet animals, youth, or that chubby old grandma baking apple pies. Square shapes translate to strength and stability. Many strong reliable characters have a quite square body type. Next time you watch comics, or even movies: Try to pick up on such details! And of course, use them in your designs.

Although this is a good rule of thumb: Don’t hesitate to experiment with shapes. That cute pet cat can still kill birds and mice. That fluffy golden retriever can still bite pretty nasty, and that wonderful horse can still kill you with a single kick.

A quick explanation: What are diatoms and dinoflagellates

Diatoms are a group of plants nor animals that live in any body of natural water. They are microscopically small, usually are unicellular, and are photosynthetic. When looking at them from under a microscope they appear crystalline and vary from greens to yellows and browns in color. Their shapes are endless, even in their simplicity and there are usually dozens of sub-species that really look alike. They are specialized to live in the body of water they’re in. This can be salt, brackish or sweet water. But oxygen, pollution, water composition, and amount of sunlight are factors too.

Dinoflagellates are much alike, they are a smaller, but just as successful group of algae. Their shapes are a bit more complex and they only live in marine environments. Their cell-wall is made out of a different kind of material and they’re capable of creating their own neurotoxins and bio-luminescence. Dinoflagellates can be predatory, unlike diatoms. We can dig deeper into the specific differences, but for artistic purposes, this is really all you need to know. They’re kinda the same, they behave kinda the same, but their differences to diatoms are significant enough to have them in their own specific group.

How do algae move

Differently shaped dinoflagellates
Image by Encyclopædia Britannica

Most diatoms are unable to swim effectively. They may move around in a colony, using each other to move from one place to another, others may have some tentacle-like protrusions that can move them around, or are used for feeding but happen to move them around as well, others can retract parts of themselves, allowing for some movement, and like that there are more ways for them to move around. But water-currents are their main tool to get from one place to another. In other words: They may be able to move around a bit, but they’re mostly passively moving along with the currents.

Dinoflagellates are usually bi-flagellate, which means they have two tentacle-like structures. One to drag them forward, the other to steer. Diatoms are a lot more evenly shapes and usually don’t have these long tentacles aiding them.

What do algae eat

Their inability to move around effectively makes finding food problematic. They feed by absorbing nutrients in the water and photosynthesize. Sometimes, when conditions are perfect, large blooms happen. This is very problematic as these blooms may locally kill off anything else that lives in the water, simply by covering the whole water surface with a thick layer of green sludge (algae). This stops oxygen and sunlight from getting into the water and toxins from getting out.
This bloom is always temporary in nature. Because they’re with so many they quickly deplete that body of water and die rapidly. When they do, they sink to the bottom, releasing nutrients. If the conditions are right: This will cause another bloom. More often than not, especially in smaller bodies of water, these blooms can totally destroy the environment.

As mentioned earlier, dinoflagellates can also be predatory, or omnivores. This is one of the other features that separates dinoflagellates from diatoms.

Bacillaria

Bacilarria algae
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

This strange thing is a colony of diatoms. This colony moves like a snake, kinda. Each oval is a single organism, they move around like an endless set of sliding doors stacked behind each other. One moment they’re a small package of organisms stacked next to each other, the next they may extend and reach out one way or another in a straight line or a crooked zigzag. The funny thing is: When one organism moves, the next will do the same, followed by a third. They do this in such a way that they create a beautiful flow without any of the organism breaking this flow.

Bacillaria lives in both salt and sweet water, being different sub-species. They don’t clump together overtime. They’re divided from one single organism, effectively making them a string of clones. Why they can move in such a coordinated way relative to each other is still unknown. They each have a slit, called the raphe, through which they excrete some sort of adhesive substance, gluing them together.
Their movement is caused by light. At night they stay compact and still, during the day, mostly during dusk and dawn, they start extending.

Dinoflagellate

Dinoflagellate
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

This is a group on its own in the algae world. The picture displayed to the right is one of the many shapes dinoflagellates can take on. They’re much more complex looking than the average diatom and they have the ability to create and use neurotoxins for hunting (when it’s a predatory type of dinoflagellate). Most of these species are also bio-luminescent and whenever a bloom happens, they literally create an ocean of light.

Bio-luminescence is a defense mechanism. Whenever they’re disturb they give off a flash of blue light. Not to scare off their predators, but to attract their predators predator. This means that, whenever a wave, or a person, or a fish, boat, or an actual predator disturbs them, they light up, creating a magical effect.

Gyrosigma

Gyrosigma algae
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

The gyrosigma is a single-celled diatom living in freshwater and slightly brackish waters. This species is relatively large compared to many other diatoms and prefers to live on fine substrate. Because of this, light penetration is limited and the gyrosigma needs to position itself in such a way on top of the substrate that it can catch as much sunlight as possible. They manage to move around by expelling EPS, or extracellular polymeric substances from their raphe slits, which in the case of the gyrosigma runs right through the middle (length) of this algae.

Opercularia

Opercularia protozoaI
llustration by: Tessa Geniets

This thing looking like a bunch of flowerheads is a colony of opercularia. They are attached to a substrate or another kind of surface and filter their food with the little filaments attached to the top of each ‘head’. There are roughly 45 different species found so far, all living in colonies and roughly shaped and behaving the same way.

They’re protozoa, which makes them family of the dino-flagellates, among other species.

Pediastrum

Pediastrum algae
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

Pediastrum is a very common kind of algae living in freshwater environments. It’s a non-moving algea that comes in many different shapes and forms. They tend to live in colonies that depending on its size can have different shapes.

Pediastrum’s are single-celled organisms that photo-synthesize. They reproduce either by cloning themselves or through zoospores, creating new colonies with a new degentic makeup.

Phacus Gigas

Phacus Gigas algae
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

Is it an onion? No! Is it a garlicbulb? No! It’s Phacus! In this particular case the Phacus Gigas, because, you guessed it already: It’s a relatively big member of the family. Phacus are commonly found in somewhat colder freshwater and are characterized by their flat, leaf-shaped structures. They’re so-called free-floating species, which means they float around freely and don’t specifically stick to a sedment or other surfaces.

Phacus species are mostly found in waters like ponds, swamps, ditches, trenches and rice fields, as long as these waters are not completely stagnant. Like many other algae they’re photo-synthetic, which means they require sunlight to create their own food. However, when they need to, they can feed on other algae.

Phacus reproduce by cloning themselves, often creating a colony. The first cell division is characterized by a ‘two-headed’ Phacus.

Vorticella
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

Vorticella

The name voticella comes from the beating cilia (the tentacle-like protrusions on the cups) that create a vortex. This vortex then draws in nutrients which feed the Vorticella.
Unlike many other algae, Vorticella doesn’t generally live in large bodies of water, but instead prefer moist soil. They’re attached to soil or plant roots and sometimes even to crustaceans and tadpoles.

When the Vorticella is still free-swimming, the stalk is used to move around. When they attached to a suitable surface the stal solidifies.
Whenever the cup of the Vorticella is touched by something that could be a predator, the stalk retracts really quick in an attempt to get out of harms way.

Desmids

Desmids are symmetrical algae coming in many different shapes. The Xanthidium is the bit more spiky type of them. They all look as if they’re a single cell dividing into two separate organisms. But they’re not! Like most other algea, they’re single-celled organisms, trapping the nucleus (the core of the cell holding genetic information) in the middle of both symmetrical segments.

Although Desmids look like they’re in the middle of a cell-devision: In truth they’re two cell-halves with different ages. Most Desmids start off as one half part (and one whole nucleus). They then branch off their other halves, sharing the nucleus with that part. When both halves are aged: One is older than the other.

When seen under the microscope, these green algae prove to have crystals moving freely within. They collide with water molecules, causing them to shift, creating beautiful glimmers.

Desmid algae
Image by Tessa Geniets

Conclusion

No matter what you are trying to create. Whether it’s a creature design, a mandala or if you’re working on a story: It always serves to dig in deep if you want to create something special. Nature holds many secrets, and anyone that wants to venture out to area’s we don’t know that well yet: There is plenty of inspiration to find. In the depth of the oceans, in the microscopic world, in environments, and even better known species when you dig into their physiology, biology, and behavior.

Always remember that, when you work on a creature design, it’s best to draw from living organisms. They will teach you what the limits are. And when you start to master and understand the limitations of our world: You may very well become a master and you will be able to break all the rules we know of and create a whole new world with your creations.

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