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A seaweed may belong to one of several groups of multicellular algae: the red algae, green algae, and brown algae. As these three groups are not thought to have a common multicellular ancestor, the seaweeds are a paraphyletic group. In addition, some tuft-forming bluegreen algae (Cyanobacteria) are sometimes considered as seaweeds — "seaweed" is a colloquial term and lacks a formal definition.

Seaweeds' appearance somewhat resembles non-arboreal terrestrial plants.

  • thallus: the algal body
  • lamina: a flattened structure that is somewhat leaf-like
  • sorus: spore cluster
  • fucus, air bladders: float-assist organ (on blade)
  • kelp, floats: float-assist organ (between lamina and stipe)
  • stipe: a stem-like structure, may be absent
  • holdfast: specialized basal structure providing attachment to a surface, often a rock or another alga.
  • haptera: finger-like extensions of holdfast anchoring to benthic substrate
    The stipe and blade are collectively known as the frond.

Two specific environmental requirements dominate seaweed ecology. These are the presence of seawater (or at least brackish water) and the presence of light sufficient to drive photosynthesis. Another common requirement is a firm attachment point. As a result, seaweeds most commonly inhabit the littoral zone and within that zone more frequently on rocky shores than on sand or shingle. Seaweeds occupy a wide range of ecological niches. The highest elevation is only wetted by the tops of sea spray, the lowest is several meters deep. In some areas, littoral seaweeds can extend several miles out to sea. The limiting factor in such cases is sunlight availability. The deepest living seaweeds are the various kelps.

A number of species such as Sargassum have adapted to a fully planktonic niche and are free-floating, depending on gas-filled sacs to maintain an acceptable depth.

Others have adapted to live in tidal rock pools. In this niche seaweeds must withstand rapidly changing temperature and salinity and even occasional drying

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