Alberta researchers study rock snot

Alberta researchers are planning to study rock snot, algae that are as attractive as their nickname and that are found in many of the province's rivers.
Post-bloom Didymosphenia geminata on a rock from the Kananaskis River. ((Andrea Kirkwood))

Alberta researchers are planning to study rock snot, algae that are as attractive as their nickname and that are found in many of the province's rivers.

University of Calgary and Parks Canada researchers don't know whether Didymosphenia geminata, also known as didymo, is new to Alberta or why the unsightly algae have spread.

Lee Jackson, a professor of biological sciences at the university, said Tuesday he first noticed rock snot in the Red Deer, Oldman and Bow rivers in 2004.

"What's really different about this is it grows in areas where nutrients are low and water is very clear and very cold. That's different from just about every other type of algae that I'm aware of," he said.

"We don't know if it's spreading through people moving it around or if it's a species that's always been here and environmental conditions have changed so that it's starting to grow to these nuisance levels."

Potential threat to trout

Jackson, who is also a trout fisherman, said the algae pose a potential threat to the fish's food source. Didymo can clog rocky river bottoms with mats of brown goo.

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"If it creates a change in the environment that does not allow water to move between the stream, down into the gravel where small bugs are living, then those bugs either will change — who's there and how many are there — or they may disappear almost entirely, and they represent the base of the food web for trout that live in the rivers."

Parks Canada is expected to put $30,000 toward the research project. The study will gather information from seven mountain parks that could help determine what, if anything, needs to be done to control didymo growth.

Researchers also plan on genetically mapping rock snot found in Alberta, Vancouver Island, B.C. and New Zealand to see whether it is unique to the province or came here from elsewhere.

Gary Scrimgeour, an aquatic ecologist with Parks Canada, said the rock algae are likely spread by people who love Alberta's rivers, such as boaters and fishermen.

"It probably comes along with some of the equipment that they wear ... or the boat itself," he said.

Anita Wolf, a casting instructor who frequents the Bow River, is also worried about rock snot and teaches her clients "clean angling ethics."

"So when you get out of the water, do you clean your gear? Do you clean your shoes? Do you clean your waders? Do you clean your line? Are you careful to make sure that the next time you enter the Bow or the next time you enter another watershed that you have clean gear on?"