British distribution (genus): Widespread and common, terrestrial, freshwater and marine.
Trichomes leave a thin mucilaginous trail as they glide, but there is no sheath of mucilage as is present in the related genus, Lyngbya.
This genus is well known for its motility, trichomes being able to glide apparently by means of wave movements of microfibrils, so long as the cells are in contact with a solid substrate. Mucilage is secreted through pores in the cell walls and may help to provide better contact with the substrate surface. Movement has been timed at up to 11 µm per second (van den Hoek et al., 1995).
Species of Oscillatoria occur in a diverse range of conditions, in damp soil or on dripping rocks, in freshwater, in the sea and in hot springs. Some are tolerant of high levels of organic pollution and some are shade-tolerant and able to survive in water below blooms of green algae. In water they may be benthic or planktonic. O. rubescens (seemingly rare in Britain) is a red species that can form conspicuous red blooms in eutrophicated lakes.
Oscillatoria is implicated in the irritation of skin and mucous membranes sometimes suffered by people swimming off tropical coastlines.