Diatoms are unicellular phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like organisms) with cell walls made of silica (called a frustule). They live in both freshwater and saltwater and can be found in just about every place on Earth that is wet. The shape and morphology of the diatom frustule unique to each species are used for identification. Due to the microscopic size of diatoms, high-power microscopy is required for diatom identification. Diatoms are vital to life on Earth. They are photosynthetic primary producers, using sunlight to create oxygen and organic carbon from carbon dioxide and water. They are a significant source of the oxygen we breathe, have a major impact on the global carbon cycle (Smetacek, 1999), and are a food source for many aquatic organisms (Mann, 1993). Diatom abundance has even been demonstrated to have an influence on the diversity of larger marine mammals, including whales (Marx and Uhen, 2010). Data on diatom abundance and diversity are extremely useful in environmental studies.
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USGS Numbered Series
Environmental investigations using diatom microfossils