Tiny mud heroes of New Zealand estuaries

Yuriy Malakhov investigates a complex community of tiny plant-like creatures, that makes estuarine mudflats one of the most productive habitats on the planet.

Pleurosigma stidolphii Sterrenburg – a common microalgae species of New Zealand mudflats.

Estuarine mudflats are usually seen as bare and fruitless wastelands, but in fact, they rank as one of the most productive habitats on Earth. They provide food for vast numbers of shorebirds and supply us with tasty shellfish. Mudflats also play a pivotal role in filtering coastal waters from various pollutants that we put there. These ecosystem services would have been impossible without benthic microalgae (BMA), tiny plant-like creatures teeming in estuarine sediments.

BMA biofilm on estuarine sediments.

BMA soak up nutrients and sunlight and transform them into food for larger animals, fuelling primary production in estuaries. However, the internal mechanics of their communities’ functioning remain fuzzy to scientists. This is because typical BMA biofilms consist of hundreds of species, all differing in their ecological capacities. These assemblages can be extremely variable in time and space, which makes it even harder to resolve the dynamics of their performance.

In my PhD, I want to draw a line between the sedimentary environment and BMA community structure, as well as explore the connections between BMA diversity and biomass production. There is a pressing challenge for understanding the future changes of the coastal environment, and I hope this research can advance it by generating a solid knowledge of BMA ecology.

Yuriy Malakhov is a PhD student in the Marine Ecology Research Group at the University of Canterbury. He is originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, where he researched freshwater microalgae biodiversity for his MSc degree. During that time, Yuriy developed a strong interest in ecology of microorganisms and this has brought him to New Zealand and his current studies of BMA and their environment.