Spirulina is the name of a genus in the order Oscillatoriales. All spirulina species are cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. When you encounter so called “spirulina supplements” in human and animal food, they are actually not derived from true spirulina species but primarily from two members of the genus Arthrospira: Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima. The reason for this confusion is that Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima used to be considered a part of the genus Spirulina until they were moved to the genus Arthrospira. Both genera belong to the same order, Oscillatoriales.
In this article we will focus on the species Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima and not on the true members of the genus Spirulina. We will use the term spirulina for these two species since it is still the dominating term in everyday speech.
Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima are cyanobacteria that float around freely in the water. In the wild, spirulina is found in lakes with a high pH-value and high levels of carbonate and bicarbonate in tropical and subtropical climates. It can be dried and served as a whole food but is also a popular dietary supplement. You can purchase spirulina flakes, tablets and powder if you wish to add it to your food or to the food of your pets. A lot aquarium creatures love to eat spirulina and are known to benefit from having spirulina in their diet, especially species that feed on algae in the wild.
One of first known records of Spirulina (i.e. Arthrospira algae) being utilized as food by humans comes from Mesoamerica. Spirulina is also believed to have been used as food in North Africa since the 9th century.
Cortez reported that the Aztecs used spirulina as food when he arrived to their empire and there is for instance an illustration in the Florentine Codex that depicts Aztecs harvesting spirulina algae off lakes by using ropes to skim the surface. According to the Florentine Codex, the algae was then dried into square cakes and used as food. According to historians, the Aztecs where not the only ones who harvested spirulina; it was an appreciated source of nutrients for many different people in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs called spirulina teocuitlatl, which roughly translates “excrement of a stone”. They seem to have stopped using spirulina as food during the 16th century. During the 1970s, Mexican company "Sosa Texcoco S.A" established the first large-scale Spirulina production plant in Mexico.
In North Africa, spirulina is believed to have been utilized as food since at least the 9th century Kanem Empire. The Kanem Empire (700 - 1376) comprised not only modern day Chad, but also parts of southern Libya and eastern Niger. Spirulina is still popular in Chad where it is harvested from lakes and ponds in the Lake Chad region and dried into cakes which are used to make broths.
Spirulina algae (i.e. Arthrospira algae) is today cultivated world wide since it is such a popular addition to foods for humans as well as animals. Many producers are found in Asia, especially in China, India, Burma, Pakistan, Taiwan and Thailand, but the United States is also home to a significant production of spirulina for the food industry.
The most common method of spirulina cultivation is to farm the algae in open-channel raceway ponds where paddle-wheels serve to keep the water agitated. Arthrospira platensis is found in South America, Africa and Asia, while Arthrospira maxima is limited to Central America.
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