Well, I couldn't resist... I ordered some Marimo Moss balls. (They are actually a form of algae, not moss.) I find them strangely attractive. They were bigger than I expected, so I ordered a globe-type fishbowl and some gravel.
I can just see it now... Sitting in the kitchen with my mossballs; telling them my troubles. Next thing I know, someone will throw a net over me and drag me off to the hu-hu hotel.
Marimo Balls grow very slowly; they only grow 5 millimeters per year.
Among the most peculiar and scientifically interesting oddities of the Icelandic nature are the lake balls, or marimo. These balls are made up of filamentous green algae (Aegagropila Linnaei). This growth form of the algae is known from only two lakes in the world today; Lake Myvatn in Iceland (where it is called kúluskítur), and Lake Akan in Japan (where it is known as Marimo).
Similar growth forms also appear in the UK, Germany, and several other Northern Hemisphere countries. However, only in Lake Akan do marimo reach a perfectly round and formidable size and shape. Lake Akan is a highly protected area and the lake-balls are regarded as a national treasure. In both of the lakes, the lake-balls are only found in certain areas. The picture above was taken in Lake Myvatn by Dr. Isamu Wakana, a Japanise scientist and a marimo expert.
Remnants from the Ice Age, Marimo used to be abundant in the Earth's Northern Hemisphere. They can only exist in extremely clean, and cold water. They are unique in the algae family, because they possess cell walls and chitin-- traits that are normally only present in plants, and thus, the distinction is blurred. Some scientists have even speculated that they could be what is left of an ancient bridge between algae and plants.
The lake-balls in Lake Mývatn are approximately 10-12 cm in diameter. Due to their spherical form, which is almost unique among plants, the photosynthetic area is at minimum when compared to the mass of the algae. Usually all photosynthetic organisms tend to maximize this area (e.g. with large leaves or many pine needles) in order to capture as much light as possible. Lake Akan is home to Marimo often reaching the size of 20 cm - 30 cm, the largest known marimo in the world.
The structure of the lake-balls is unique. There is no core (e.g. pebble) in the center. The algal filaments grow in all directions from the center of the ball, continuously branching and thereby laying the foundation for the spherical form. Surprisingly, the ball is green all through, although light only reaches a very short distance (few mm) into the ball (take a plant from your window, put it in total darkness for ten days and see what happens). The chlorophyll inside the ball seems to be in some kind of hibernation in the dark, but if it becomes exposed to light e.g. if a ball breaks up, it is activated again. This phenomenon may be unique to the lake-balls among photosynthetic organisms.
Very little is known about the live-cycle of the balls. In Lake Myvatn, most of the balls are of the same size and “juveniles” are hardly found. That indicates that recruitment is either very slow or comes from outside the ball-areas. The age of the balls is also unknown, as there are no growth rings or other signs of annual growth. They are probably slow-growing and the age may be counted in years.
Marimo have not always had an easy life in the lake which serves the local community as a tourist attraction and a valuable water resource. Ironically, after the first governmental designation of marimo as a Natural Treasure in 1921, people came from all over the country to obtain these unique plants. Some were taken away as souvenirs by tourists and many others were stolen and sold for high prices in urban areas. Other damages were caused after a hydroelectric power plant was built along Akan River which flows out of the lake in 1920. A number of marimo, which can survive only in the shallow water, were exposed and withered as a result of the lowered water level due to the use of lake water for generating electricity.
In the 1940s, recognizing that marimo was severely endangered, the local people launched a campaign to protect the plant, one of which continues to this day, the Marimo Festival which originated in 1950. Held every October, when the autumn leaves on the lakeshores are at their best, the three-day festival is led by the local Ainu people, and culminates on the third day with a ritual in which a senior Ainu on board a small wooden boat returns the marimo one by one, carefully and thankfully, into the lake.
Marimo Balls were first discovered in Lake Akan almost 100 years ago by Tetsuya Kawakami. In 1921 they were declared a "Japanese Natural Treasure" and the public's interest in Marimo was stirred. Marimo began being sold in jars to tourist who paid high prices to have their very own Natural Treasure. Not long after, a hydro-electric plant was built on the Akan river leading into the lake. This river was dammed and the lake's water level fell dramatically. Dead and decaying Marimo began littering the shores of Lake Akan and people were appalled at this mass death of their Natural Treasure. Due to both the peddling of individual Marimo and the damming of the Akan river, the numbers of Marimo balls were declining fast.
An environmentalist movement to save the Marimo of Lake Akan was started, and an appeal was made to the people of Japan to return their bottled Marimo souvenirs. Surprisingly, the people responded, and great numbers of the bottled Marimo were returned to the lake. The people of Lake Akan were so overwhelmed by the support they received that they held a festival in appreciation. And so it was, on October 7, 1950 the first of the annual Marimo Festivals was celebrated at Lake Akan.
The local government of Akan Town re-opened the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center in 1996 after extensive renovation. The new center is equipped with various facilities to promote the environmental and scientific importance of marimo as well as research on the protection and propagation of the species.
In 1950, the Ainu people around Lake Akan (http://www.lake-akan.com/en/events/index.html) started celebrating the lake balls with a Marimo Festival (まりも祭り) which is now celebrated for three days for once a year on the second weekend of October. Marimo are taken up from the lake, cleaned and blessed at a local shrine, then returned to the water. This has become a very large affair with mascots and tourists and has become important to Ainu cultural identity. Marimo are sold as pets at the festival and other places in Hokkaido, but these are cultured marimo, made from algal filaments. They will still grow, if properly cared for, and can have a place in aquariums or jars that hold nothing else but a single marimo.
Marimo Matsuri: An Ainu Celebration of Conserving the Rare Marimo Algae
from: jpninfo.com Feb 8, 2016
Have you ever seen a ball of seaweed before? In Japan, it is a common sighting in Lake Akan in Hokkaido. These are algae which have grown into a large green ball popularly known as “marimo” in Japanese. They only grow in freshwater, thus, much is being done to conserve them. They have also been designated as Special Natural Monuments of the country.
What is Marimo?
“Marimo” is the name given by the Japanese botanist, Tatsuhiko Kawakami, to the bouncy ball of algae. Algae grow in three different ways: epilithic, free-floating and ball proper. Marimo undergoes the third growth form and can even grow as large as 20-30 centimeters. Its roundness is maintained by the waves’ gentle action in which it constantly rolls the ball around. This action helps them reach the light needed for photosynthesis.
What is Marimo Matsuri?
One of the conservation practices of marimo is called “Marimo Matsuri” which is done on the shores of Lake Akan. It is held for three days in order to provide awareness of the unique nature of marimo. The festival features a lot of traditional dances and religious rites. These are particularly handed down by the Ainu, an indigenous group of people in Japan.
The first day of the festival is dedicated to educating people about marimo’s existence and importance in society. It can include field trips to their habitat. The Marimo Dance Parade is held on the second day, together with the Ceremony for Receiving Marimo. It will be followed by a prayer of gratitude to the gods of Mother Nature as a way of thanking them for last year’s blessings. The Closing Ceremony includes returning marimo to the depths of the lake by a person riding in a traditional Ainu canoe. At night time, the Pine Torch Procession is celebrated and there is also a fireworks display which is very enchanting to watch.
Preservation of endangered species is one of the responsibilities of all human beings and Marimo Matsuri is one great example of this.
A Walk Along the Shores of Lake Akan, and a Journey to the Past
Today has been a full day of good rest for me. I slept late this morning trying to sleep off some of my fatigue. In the morning I strode down to the Akan Visitor's Center to see what I could discover about the "wonder of Lake Ball 'Marimo,'" algae ball. In Ainu Marimo is "To karibu" meaning "ball of the marsh" or "Torasante" meaning "seed of the lake."
Marimo is the name given to a type of land locked algae formed by many small strings of algae tangled together in a radial pattern forming a fuzzy green ball. Though round Marimo are unique only to Lake Akan, other similar algae can be found in several lakes in Japan and the world. Current studies show that the same family with Marimo can be found in Austria, Germany, Holland, Indiana and New York States, USA, and Siberia, Russia. Due to the large size and ball like roundness of the Marimo in Akan, the Marimo is regarded as an asset to all of the world. It takes more than 100 years for natural marimo algae to grow to a diameter of 10cm, but the marimo algae in Lake Akanko are the largest in the world, growing to a diameter of 30cm.
Back in the old days, one could just walk down to the water of Lake Akan and take home one's very own Marimo, but times have changed and the safety of the Marimo is at risk. In post war Japan rapid development occurred throughout the country, Lake Akan was no exception. Forestry north of Lake Akan and the use of Akan water to run hydroelectric plants are two of the initial causes to jeopardize the Marimo habitat. Logging upstream dirtied the shallow waters of Lake Akan, thus reducing the exposure to sunlight necessary for the Marimo to photosynthesize. Reduced water level caused by supplying hydroelectric plants also left many Marimo on the shore to die in the sun.
The environment was second to development at the time, but the Association for Marimo Care Tenders as well as the Ainu community here in Akan, took measures to bring back Marimo. Initially the movement started with a nation wide attempt to have people return the Marimos taken away from Akan as souvenirs. People from all over the country cooperated and returned their precious Marimo. This was followed by the Marimo's registration as a Special Natural Monument of Japan in 1952. The Ainu as well created the Marimo Festival shortly prior to this in 1950, to honor its existence. Affection for the Marimo has led to community wide support for protection of the environment. It has also grown into a huge tourist attraction.
Though measures to protect Marimo have been ongoing for many years now, the Marimo habitat is still unstable. Most of the lake used to be suitable for Marimo to grow, but currently there are only a few areas in which they grow. Tourists are only able to see Marimo at the visitor center or the Marimo Museum. Artificially grown Marimo are available in glass bottles in souvenir shops lining the streets.
Marimo have gone from being a hardly know green ball of algae to being a symbol of the community and natural environment of Akan. This symbol in itself creates a unique attempt to preserve the environment. People all over the country now know and adore Marimo.
At the same time the tourist attraction of Marimo itself creates new environmental problems. The tourist industry buses, boats, hotel waste, etc. itself are bound to effect on the Marimo habitat. As much of the economy here relies on tourism, the dilemma of environmental protection vs. economic stability is a problem.
Marimo have captured the hearts of many and are symbolic to the environmental movement; I hope that the natural environment for Marimo as well as for the people of Akan continues to grow strong.