The Phycology Section activities focus on the ecology and taxonomy of algae, particularly diatoms. Our studies deal with how algal taxa are distributed and how environmental factors influence the occurrence of various algal assemblages. Studies deal with large, national scales along with localized assemblages within our state and region. We are particularly interested in applying knowledge of algal ecology to the assessment of a wide range of environmental issues, primarily those related to water quality of rivers, lakes and estuaries.

Since there are many algal taxa, and because they live in a wide variety of habitats, many with specific ecological requirements, algae are excellent ecological indicators, particularly of water quality. Diatoms have a long history of use in ecological assessment. Dr. Ruth Patrick, founder of the Patrick Center, performed important pioneering research on use of diatoms for biomonitoring starting in the 1940s.

For information or inquiries on Phycology work or data, please contact Mariena Hurley at

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  • Field collection of periphyton and phytoplankton samples
  • Deployment and collection of diatometers
  • Coring of lake and wetland sediments
  • Analysis of periphyton and phytoplankton samples; identification and enumeration
  • Analysis of diatoms in sediment cores; environmental reconstructions
  • Digital imaging of algae specimens; light microscope and SEM
  • Description of new diatom taxa
  • Multivariate analysis of species and environmental data
  • Calculation and development of metrics and other water quality indicators
  • Calibration of inference models for inferring environmental characteristics
  • Water quality assessment based on algal data (e.g., nutrient issues)


The Phycology Section has the facilities and equipment for laboratory and most field situations. The section has a wide variety of field equipment for taking algal samples (water samplers, sediment coring equipment, etc.), a separate laboratory for preparing algal samples and making diatom slides, a microwave apparatus for digesting diatom samples, six high quality research microscopes, with digital cameras and computers with internet connections, two film cameras for the microscopes, local access to scanning electron microscopes, and an extensive reference collection of taxonomic and ecological literature —both in the laboratory and in the Academy’s Diatom Herbarium located next to the Phycology Section Microscope Laboratory.

The section developed and maintains several applications and databases, including the North American Diatom Ecological Database (NADED), which contains count and other data on over 10,000 samples.

Selected Projects

Neotoma Paleocology Database
Neotoma Paleoecology Database and Community is an online hub for data, research, education, and discussion about paleoenvironments. Neotoma’s centralized structure facilitates interdisciplinary, multiproxy analyses and common tool development; discipline-specific data can also be easily accessed. Data currently include North American Pollen (NAPD) and fossil mammals (FAUNMAP). Other proxies (plant macrofossils, beetles, ostracodes, diatoms, etc.) and geographic areas (Europe, Latin America, etc.) will be added in the near future. Data are derived from sites from the last 5 million years.
National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program
The NAWQA program is the largest federal effort to date to monitor and assess the conditions of rivers and streams throughout the United States. Fifty-one major watersheds and aquifers (referred to as “study units”) are being evaluated, representing 60% of the nation's drinking water. The goal of NAWQA is to provide continuous water quality assessments that identify and describe major water quality issues. The results of the program will serve as the basis for understanding watershed ecosystems nationwide, and for solving serious water quality problems. To this end, the USGS research staff is measuring a wide variety of water chemistry parameters and physical habitat characteristics, in addition to identifying fish, benthic invertebrates and algae. Data are analyzed on the watershed scale and also on a national scale.
Algal Indicators of Eutrophication for New Jersey Streams
The Patrick Center's Phycology Section is developing algal indicators of stream and river eutrophication for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJ DEP). These indicators will be designed to assess relationships between extant water quality criteria (e.g., phosphorus and nitrogen concentrations) and overt signs of eutrophication. They could potentially be applied in a regulatory context as secondary criteria for identifying nutrient impairment. These indicators will be based on our understanding of algal dynamics in New Jersey streams, and should distinguish between situations in which nutrient concentrations are high due to natural environmental conditions and those that result from anthropogenic influences.
Manatawny Creek Dam Removal
In recent years, concern over degradation of aquatic resources, issues of liability, and maintenance costs, has led to the removal of several small dams around the United States. Approximately 35 dams have already been removed from Pennsylvania rivers and streams, and an additional 30 are scheduled to be removed over the next one to two years.
Riparian Reforestation in an Urbanizing Watershed
The restoration of riparian forests has become a major focus of watershed initiatives and efforts to meet Clean Water Act goals. Funding is often available for restoration activity, with success measured as the amount of stream miles improved. Monitoring activities to measure the real ecological and environmental benefits are rare, and there is a real danger of wasting effort on techniques that are inappropriate for local conditions.
Diatom Paleolimnology Data Cooperative (DPDC)
The Diatom Paleolimnology Data Cooperative (DPDC) is a web-accessible database of diatom and associated ecological and paleolimnological data relevant to study of global change. It contains data on regional surface-sample calibration sets (counts, water chemistry, inference models), sediment cores (counts, dating information, and diatom inferred characteristics), and other types of samples. It is intended for researchers needing data on long-term trends in variables related to global change, and diatomists involved with creating those data. Initial emphasis has been on data sets providing information on salinity, lake level, hydrology, trophic state, pH, and other factors that can be related to climate change, acidic deposition and eutrophication.