They are enchanting glassy single-celled organisms that produce up to 20% of the oxygen on the planet. They can form colonies in the shape of elegant ribbons and fans or even stars. This is impressive for a tiny creature that can be as small as 2 micrometers. As a reference, a human hair is around 75 micrometers. That means that a single diatom can’t be seen unless you have a good microscope, but when taken all together, their population makes up nearly half the organic material in the ocean.

Lifelong Brunswick resident Claude Bonang has not only seen the value of diatoms in the ecosystem, but also their beauty. A retired biology teacher turned artist, Bonang, who is 89 combines his two passions by creating whimsical art out of seaside finds – like pairs of clams with periwinkle eyeballs and pipe-cleaner limbs dancing the jitterbug. Recently, he became fascinated with diatoms and decided to create a small booklet entitled Awesome Diatoms, about their natural history as well as the art they have inspired.

“I came across some old slides of diatoms and became fascinated by them,” says Bonang. “They’re important in so many ways – and they’re so beautiful. I thought, “I’ve got to let people know about this.”

The word diatom comes from the Greek word diatomas, which means “cut in two.” That’s because each diatom sits inside a case made of two silica valves. It is these valves that make diatoms so lovely – they have a wide assortment of spines, ridges, and pores on their surface. There are some 600,000 different species, so the variations are incredible. They also live in an impressive array of habitats including both fresh and saltwater along with marshes and bogs.

Because they exist in large numbers, when they die, they leave behind innumerable silica cases. Diatoms have existed since the Cretaceous period – back in dinosaur times millions of years ago. They don’t technically form fossils because the part of the diatom that is preserved is the silica case rather than the living part. But, they do accumulate in large quantities known as diatomite or diatomaceous earth that can last tens of millions of years. By looking at the layers of this chalky material, scientists can understand what conditions were like in the past.

Scientists aren’t the only ones to study diatoms, however. One of the things that fascinated Claude Bonang was the art that people created using diatoms. This may seem crazy – using teeny living plants to create art. But, one impressive creation was a hit at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. Johann Diedrich Möller, a German microscope maker, displayed “Universum,” an arrangement of 4,026 diatoms within a 6 x 6.7mm space. It blows your mind how people are able to line up these living things to create art,” says Bonang.

Sometimes art provides a unique entry point for people to learn about something unknown and obscure such as diatoms. Bonang is now trying to bring that attention back to what he sees as living creatures that contribute immensely to the health of our oceans and are underappreciated. Anyone interested in obtaining a copy of Awesome Diatoms can contact Claude at [email protected]

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