Working at the National Botanic Garden of Belgium, in Meise, Christine Cocquyt specializes in the infinitely small in the plant world. Indeed, for 30 years, including 11 spent in Burundi, she has studied diatoms, unicellular algae that comprise the base of the food chain and produce great quantities of oxygen vital to the planet.
Team coordinator of the expedition's botanists, she is looking for to sifting through the mass of samples collected. In addition to 1,222 higher plants, Belgian and Congolese scientists collected 750 samples of lichens, 380 of diatoms, 400 of mushrooms and 140 of myxomycetes (slimy moulds).
‘In this part of the river, we were practically the first scientists to look for diatoms. So it wouldn’t be surprising to discover totally unknown species’. We’ll have to wait until spring 2011 to see if that’s true, but it’s a near certainty at this stage: one myxomycete species known only to exist in Brazil has already been discovered. While small, lower plants – especially diatoms – play a fundamental role as bio-indicators.
‘If we want to monitor Congo River water quality in the future, it’s important to learn more about diatoms. When the environment changes at the physico-chemical and nutrient level, species can change. And that can influence the entire trophic (food) chain above plants’. Another promising sign: ‘The collaboration with Congolese botanists during the river expedition was a total success. It will continue to be of great benefit once the Kisangani’s Centre de Surveillance de la Biodiversité [Biodiversity Surveillance Centre] becomes operational’.