Algae and Moss

Filamentous algae growing in the Colorado River near Lee’s Ferry. Copyright 2011 Wayne Wurtsbaugh, Photographer
Filamentous algae growing in the Colorado River near Lee’s Ferry
Copyright 2011
Wayne Wurtsbaugh, Photographer

Tortula ruralis is one of the few mosses that are common in the desert. Licensed through Wikimedia, Kristian Peters, PhotographerTortula ruralis
one of the few mosses
that are common in the desert
Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed under CCA 3.0
Kristian Peters, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Utah State University’s Quinney College of Natural Resources.

Algae and moss are plentiful in and around Utah streams and lakes. But lots of people confuse these two kinds of plants. So let’s sort out what each one is.

First, both moss and algae are ancient plant forms that are commonly found in wet or moist places. As primary producers both algae and moss use sunlight to fix energy, giving off oxygen as a byproduct.

Neither algae nor moss has a vascular system to transport water so vertical growth is not their strong suit. Rarely more than an inch tall, a cushion of moss is really a tight cluster of individual moss plants. Bunching helps support the individual moss structures and helps conserve water. Meanwhile, algae comes in many forms, from microscopic one-celled diatoms to huge colonies of giant floating mats, or long flowing filaments. Algae also comes in many colors, such as green, gold, brown and red.

So where are they found? Moss loves shade. Look for it in the deep shadowy gorges and box canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers. It also thrives in drainages off cliffs and around springs. Damp meadows, tree bases, bogs, and pond edges make great moss habitat. You will seldom find moss in saline environments. Some moss species live submerged in water but most live on land. With the sun-loving algae, the opposite is true—most live in water but some species will grow on damp soil and on the shaded sides of damp walls and trees.

Moss grows very slowly and lives a long time. So it needs a stable environment in which to grow. In contrast, algae is extremely fast-growing. A generation might last from one to several days. Algae is also extremely sensitivity to chemical, temperature and light conditions. Therefore, the presence, absence or quantity of algal species can be a useful indicator of ecosystem health. For instance, your aquatic system is probably in pretty good shape if a number of different species are flourishing. However, if the water is dominated by one or just a few fast growing species and the water starts to turn color—usually green—the system is seriously out of whack. Called algal blooms, these dramatic explosions of growth are usually the result of excess phosphorus or nitrogen runoff in the water.

During blooms the algal mass produces lots of oxygen during the day, but it consumes more than it makes at night. Further, more dead organic material is produced which eats up more oxygen. The result is a severe oxygen deficit. Resident fish, insects, and plants are deprived of oxygen and end up suffocating.

Go to for links to information on how to prevent algal blooms.

Thanks to 4th grade classes of Fallon Farokhi and Andrea Bostwick for their interest in moss, algae and water quality. Funded by an environmental education grant from the EPA Region 8, the 4th graders investigated and reported on water quality issues in the Bear River watershed. Also, thanks to Wayne Wurtsbaugh and Chuck Hawkins of Utah State University’s College of Natural Resources for their expertise in writing this piece.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Image: Algae, Courtesy & Copyright Wayne Wurtsbaugh, Utah State University, Department of Watershed Sciences
Image: Moss, Licensed through the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) Courtesy Wikimedia, Kristian Peters, Photographer
Text: Holly Strand, Utah State University, Quinney College of Natural Resources

Sources & Additional Reading

US EPA. Harmful Algal Blooms

US EPA. The Effects of Nutrient Pollution and Harmful Algal Blooms]

US EPA. What You Can Do to Reduce Nutrient Pollution

Barbour, M.T., J. Gerritsen, B.D. Snyder, and J.B. Stribling. 1999. Rapid Bioassessment Protocols for Use in Streams and Wadeable Rivers: Periphyton, Benthic Macroinvertebrates and Fish, Second Edition. EPA 841-B-99-002. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Office of Water; Washington, D.C.

Fisher, S.G. 1995. Stream Ecosystems of the Western United States. In River and Stream Ecosystems of the World, edited by Colbert E. Cushing, Kenneth W. Cummins, G. Wayne Minshall. NY: Elsevier
Flowers, Seville. 1973. Mosses: Utah and the West. Edited by Arthur Holmgren.

Moss, Brian. 2010. Ecology of Freshwaters. A View for the Twenty-First Centruy. Wiley-Blackwell.
Utah Division of Water Quality. Nutrients in Utah’s Waters

Utah Water Research Laboratory. 2002. Understanding Nitrate Pollution in Small and Native American Communities. Water Treatment Technology Program Report No. 53. Washington DC, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Phragmites-Utah’s Grassy Invader

Invasive Phragmites
Phragmites australis
Photo Courtesy
Plant Conservation Alliance
Alien Plant Working Group
As found on
Photographers credited on Factsheet

Invasive Phragmites vs. Native

Photo Courtesy
Plant Conservation Alliance
Alien Plant Working Group
As found on
See guide to distinguish
Invasive from Native plants
Photographers credited on Factsheet

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

When exploring wetlands, streambanks, and the shores of Great Salt Lake this time of year, it’s common to see tall grasses, over ten feet high, blowing in the breeze. While it is very abundant, the common reed known as Phragmites australis is anything but normal.

Phragmites was introduced from Europe over a century ago, and is now found in all 50 states and on every continent except Antarctica. It can grow to more than 15 feet in height, with long blade-like leaves. It flowers from July to October, producing dense, feathery clusters of small flowers that are purple while flowering and turn light brown after producing seeds. Each stem can produce up to 2,000 wind-dispersed seeds that are particularly effective at colonizing new areas. Because of this, Phragmites can take over a disturbed area quickly and prevent native plants, such as bulrush and cattail, from becoming established.

Like other invasive plants, Phragmites is successful at outcompeting native plants. Once a plant is established from seed, Phragmites spreads quickly through rhizomes, or underground stems, that can produce many additional stalks. While Phragmites may start growing among other wetland plants, it quickly outcompetes them for nutrients and sunlight. However, the native “Phragmites australis subspecies americanus” does not grow nearly as dense or tall, and tends to not be invasive.

Because introduced Phragmites can quickly grow into solid stands, it can greatly reduce plant diversity in wetlands, ultimately reducing the quality of wildlife habitat. Wetlands along the shore of Great Salt Lake are particularly important habitat for many migratory birds species, some of which occur here in the largest populations in North America or the world. The rapid takeover by Phragmites in these wetlands could eventually have dramatic impacts to the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

In order to combat this threat, wetland managers have tried several methods for controlling or removing Phragmites, including spraying with herbicide, burning, livestock grazing, and mowing. Dr. Karin Kettenring, a Utah State University researcher, and her graduate students are currently studying the effects of several of these Phragmites control methods along the shores of Great Salt Lake. By experimenting with the timing of mowing and herbicide treatment, as well as covering mowed Phragmites with heavy black plastic, Dr. Kettenring and her team hope to find the most effective combination of treatments. With the continual conversion of native wetland habitats to a monoculture of Phragmites, Dr. Kettenring’s research is of particular importance to maintaining the health of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem- one of our state’s greatest natural wonders.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Images: Courtesy & Copyright
            Jil M. Swearingen, National Park Service, Center for Urban Ecology, Washington, DC
            Dr. Kristin Saltonstall, Adjunct Research Scientist, Horn Point Laboratory,
                  University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Solomon, MD
            Robert Meadows, Environmental Scientist, North DE Wetland Rehabilitation Program,
                  DE Mosquito Control Section, Newark, DE
            As found on
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Evans K, Martinson W (2008) Utah’s featured birds and viewing sites: a conservation platform for Important Bird Areas and Bird Habitat Conservation Areas. Salt Lake City, Utah

Kulmatiski A, Beard KH, Meyerson LA, Gibson JR, Mock KE (2010) Nonnative Phragmites australis invasion into Utah wetlands. Western North American Naturalist 70:541-552

Long, A.L., C.M.U. Neale, and K.M. Kettenring. 2012. Management of Phragmites in the Great Salt Lake watershed. Final report to the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands. 15 pp.

Wetlands-What’s in a name?

Wetlands- What’s in a name?

Wetlands- What’s in a name? Pond and marsh showing wetland plants with Canada geese goslings and pelicans. Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Pond and marsh showing
wetland plants with
Canada geese goslings and pelicans.
Courtesy & Copyright ©
Mark Larese-Casanova

Wetlands- What’s in a name? Pickleweed growing in a salt playa is adapted to growing in saline soils. Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Pickleweed growing in a salt playa
is adapted to growing in saline soils.
Courtesy & Copyright ©
Mark Larese-Casanova

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.Wetlands- What’s in a name?

A wetland really is more than just ‘land that is wet’. There are certain key ingredients that need to go into a wetland for it to truly be a wetland. Of course, water needs to be present for at least part of the growing season. It can simply be in the form of temporarily saturated soils or even standing water a few feet deep.

As soil becomes saturated with water, oxygen levels are greatly reduced. Quite often, bacteria in saturated soils will create hydrogen sulfide, giving wetland soils that stinky odor of rotten eggs. As plants grow in a wetland over several years, their decaying matter helps to create a thick, dark layer of organic soil.

The presence of water in a wetland encourages the growth of hydrophytes, or ‘water-loving’ plants, that are specially adapted to living in wet environments. Many wetland plants have open spaces within the leaves and stems- often referred to as aerenchyma. This allows oxygen to diffuse down to the roots, sometimes creating an oxygen-rich environment in the soil around a plant. Also, many wetland plants reproduce both by floating or wind-dispersed seeds and by rhizomes, which are underground roots that can travel great distances. Some plants that grow in salty wetlands around the Great Salt Lake are able to control the salt in their tissues by depositing it on the outside of the leaf or containing it in chambers within their cells.

Like plants, specially adapted animals also call wetlands their home. Mammals and birds have oily fur or feathers that allow them to swim in cold water without losing much body heat. They also often have webbed feet to aid in swimming. Other animals, such as fish, amphibians, and insects, have gills to breathe in water.

Despite being the second driest state in the country, Utah has a high diversity of wetlands. Vast marshes surround the Great Salt Lake, providing habitat to enormous populations of migratory birds. Less obvious wet meadows provide unique habitat to butterflies and other insects. Salty playas, which are shallow basins with no outlet, are found throughout the West Desert, creating unique ecosystems of highly adapted plants. Riparian wetlands can grow along the edges of rivers, providing a unique transition between the swift water and upland habitats. Southern Utah is home to some peculiar wetlands such as potholes and hanging gardens, both associated with sandstone bedrock. A hanging garden clings to the side of a moist cliff, creating a microhabitat for rare plants, such as orchids and monkeyflower. Potholes can simply be eroded basins in the sandstone where water collects in spring. A pothole is an oasis that provides water for desert wildlife and a home for fairy shrimp and spadefoot toads.

Spring is the perfect time of year to visit a wetland. The constant chorus of birds, insects and amphibians are a testament to the importance of wetlands, teeming with life in the middle of a desert.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright © Mark Larese-Casanova

Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Mitsch, W.J., and J.W. Gosselink. (1993). Wetlands. Van Nostrand Rheinhold.

Tiner, R. W. (1999). Wetland Indicators: A Guide to Wetland Identification, Delineation, Classification, and Mapping. CRC Press

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. (1995). Playas to Marshes…Where Water Meets Land. Growing WILD Newsletter.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. (2003). Utah’s Wonderful Wetlands Activity Guide.
Wetlands- What’s in a name?
Wetlands- What’s in a name?
Wetlands- What’s in a name?