Up Close: Tom Frankovich

By Sajida Malik

At the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, we’re training the next generation of changemakers. Our faculty and students are constantly making new discoveries which lead to new publications and solutions. We took a closer look at not only the research, but the people who make it all happen. This is one in a series we’ve titled, Up Close.

Tom Frankovich studies little organisms that cause big problems.

Often, the first question asked during or after a harmful algal bloom is “What is it?” Frankovich is on the frontlines of addressing ecological issues both locally and throughout the world. His work on diatoms and their impact on the surrounding environment advances our knowledge on how these organisms inhabit marine life globally and aids in understanding the cause and effects of harmful algae blooms locally.

North Biscayne Bay Chaetoceros Bloom
North Biscayne Bay Chaetoceros Bloom, August 21, 2020 | Photo courtesy WLPG

Just after Labor Day 2021, another fishkill happened at Biscayne Bay and thus Frankovich was called to investigate.

He collected water samples to examine phytoplankton under a microscope just as he did in 2020 when a fishkill and its subsequent algae bloom that consisted of large concentrations of diatom species befouled the bay.

This year his samples, collected about 5 days after the observed fishkill, revealed low amounts of phytoplankton.

Back in 2020 Frankovich helped identify the culprit of the bloom in Biscayne Bay, Chaetoceros lauderi, which was submitted to Diatoms of North America. His findings allowed for the creation of a reference page that will allow scientists who come across this species to make the identification more quickly.

While there was no bloom after this year’s fish kill, a similar algae composition to the one observed during the 2020 bloom was found. This year’s samples were dominated by two diatom species of the genus Chaetoceros, possibly the same ones which bloomed last year.

Frankovich’s observations have helped to identify harmful algal blooms across South Florida. 

But it was back in 2018 when the community first saw him as a local resource thanks to his expertise on seagrass, water quality and diatoms. He was called upon to investigate a reddish-brown patch in the water at the mouth of residential canal in the Florida Keys. It was determined to be a bloom of Fibrocapsa japonica, which belongs to a specific group of algae known as raphidophytes, that have been associated with fish kills. No dead fish were seen in this case, possibly because this happened in an isolated area where the fish were able to swim away.

“Being able to answer that critical ‘What is it?’ question means being able to respond at any time to observe the features of the specimens – like their internal organelles, flagella, and swimming patterns – while they are still alive before the cells degrade and die.” Frankovich said. “This means getting on site fast and getting those specimens back to the lab quickly so they can be examined, described, and imaged. It is exciting knowing that people are anxiously waiting to know the identity of the bloom and if it is harmful.”

Image of C. lauderi taken from a scanning electron microscope. | Photo courtesy Tom Frankovich

To identify the diatoms Frankovich first images the species and then like a detective he searches the literature to find clues about what the organisms could be. This includes searching through hundreds of reference books, thousands of research journal publications, as well as several online taxonomic resources. Frankovich’s current work to identify the species associated with the 2021 fish kill even includes translating historical species descriptions to English from the original German, French, and Danish literature dating back to 1895.

“I specifically try to obtain the original descriptions and illustrations of species because those produced by later authors, supposedly of the same species, may not represent the original understanding of the species. It is like the “telephone game” where the story is changed through the years. You cannot rely solely on what is provided in reference texts; you need to go back to the original description, and in some cases, locate and examine original “type” specimens.”

Frankovich’s expertise in the taxonomy of diatoms, also led the veterinarians at the University of Florida to reach out when they needed to identify the microscopic organisms living on sea turtles and dolphins and rule them out as parasites. This eventually led Frankovich to work with manatees to identify the diatoms living on them as well.

This work has led to the discovery of many unidentified diatom species and two unidentified species of red algae that live exclusively on manatees and sea turtles. Interestingly, the diatoms on sea turtles and manatees are most closely related to those on whales. To understand the evolution of these diatoms, Frankovich is now examining diatom communities that live on whales.

To learn more, visit environment.fiu.edu.