The South African Diatom Collection

14 December 2010

I have included this summary of the SANDI prepared by Jonathan Taylor and myself:

The SA National Diatom Collection has recently changed ownership and location, has been augmented with several thousand samples and is accessible to researchers. The SANDC has its origins chiefly through the work of the eminent Hungarian diatomist Béla Cholnoky. Cholnoky commenced his work in the early 1950s, first at the University of Pretoria and subsequently at the CSIR (Pretoria) where he worked until his death in 1972. He published 38 articles, in which he described many hundreds of new taxa and a book dealing with the taxonomy and ecology of the diatoms of southern and central Africa. His slides, much of his original raw material and his library were, until recently housed in disuse at the CSIR in Durban.

Bela J Cholnoky - the father of South African diatomology

Cholnoky trained three algal specialists, R.E.M. “Archie” Archibald and Ferdi Schoeman specialised like their mentor in diatom taxonomy and ecology, while Colin Archibald, initially specialised in the study of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, has in recent years also specialised in diatoms. Shoeman and “Archie” Arichibald continued to work at the CSIR after the death of Cholnoky, and are perhaps best known in the diatom community for their Diatom Flora of Southern Africa (Schoeman & Archibald 1976), a work inspired by Cholnoky, and their seminal work on the group Amphora. Their collections reside alongside those of Cholnoky in the CSIR collection. Schoeman, together with Val Meaton, tackled the monumental task of ordering Cholnoky’s extensive collection and produced a complete catalogue of all of Cholnoky’s African material.

Malcolm Giffen was a colleague of Cholnoky who lectured at the University of Fort Hare and collected diatoms from 1945 to 1976. He specialised, in the main, on marine littoral diatoms and also published on the freshwater flora of the Hog’s back region in the Eastern Cape (e.g. Giffen 1963, 1966). His slides are also currently housed in the CSIR collection. The collection also contains much material donated from other collections such as the Hustedt collection.

Malcolm Giffen at his microscope

After the untimely death of “Archie” Archibald, the diatom collection was championed by his brother Colin and moved (rescued) from CSIR Pretoria to the offices of CSIR Durban. The collection was ordered and housed and has been ad hoc curated by Colin Archibald and Johan van der Molen until the end of 2009. During this time Bill Harding, briefly mentored by Archie Archibald during the early 1990s, investigated the collection and its contents in some depth during a WRC funded project, producing a report to show the scientific value and resources contained in the collection . Harding has continuously encouraged the full use and curation of the collection, as well as the integration of diatoms with aquatic biomonitoring in South Africa.

The digitization process for endemic species started with an Andrew Mellon Foundation (USA) pilot project on fresh water Surrirelloid species, undertaken collaboratively with the National Botanic Garden of Belgium (Meise) and the Botanic Garden Berlin-Dahlem. The South African Biodiversity Information Facility (SABIF) recently funded a project for the digitization of the collection catalogue and species information contained in the notes and publications of Cholnoky, this project remains ongoing but has been transferred to Jonathan Taylor at NWU.

Recently Steve Mitchell (ex-WRC) brought various interested parties together to discuss the fate of the diatom collection, as the CSIR had indicated that it was not part of their mandate to curate a collection of national importance. This was in line with Harding’s original recommendation that the collection should be actively-managed by an organisation better suited for this purpose (i.e. a national collections facility). The outcome of this process was that the ownership or the collection was transferred to the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) and is now under the management of Roger Bills. Part of the agreement for transfer was, however, that the collection would be housed and curated at the North-West University on the terms of a long loan. It was decided to proceed in this manner as SAIAB has a mandate to look after aquatic collections but no diatom expertise, while NWU is the current national centre for diatom research. The current North-West University diatom collection of over four thousand samples will now be merged with the CSIR collection and together become known as the South African National Diatom Collection. The Water Research Commission generously funded a project to move the collection and to train the curator for a year.

The current collection database will be merged with that of the SAIAB and all new additions to the collection will be entered therein. All data currently in the collection will be migrated into the Specify database system and that a variety of collections objects will be made available e.g. the diatoms themselves, prepared slides, drawings, photos and raw data (largely through pdf versions). The ultimate aim is to raise the quality of the collection by organising it and thus making it more accessible to research.

Sad that with all these positive steps, the WRC has decided to terminate the research work!

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