Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: We've lost touch with the tiny, microscopic things

 

A A A

Ask your child what a tyrannosaurus is, or a velociraptor, and you'll probably get an intelligible answer. Movies have made dinosaurs familiar to millions. But ask them what a rotifer is, or a tardigrade, and you'll get a blank stare.

Yet 50 years ago, many boys and girls might have enlightened you, says Peter Marren, one of our leading naturalists. For tardigrades and rotifers are microscopic animals found in freshwater bodies, such as ponds, and were the delight of children with microscopes – now, says Mr Marren, virtually a vanished species.

Not just children, either. It's as if, he says, a whole, major part of the natural world has dropped out of our consciousness – microscopic life, the kingdom of the tiny. That's something he's an authority on, because two years ago he published Bugs Britannica, a fascinating encyclopaedia of Britain's invertebrates, the creatures without backbones, which are overwhelmingly insects, but also the very tiny things, such as daphnia or water fleas.

Nobody looks at them now, he laments. "Hardly anybody uses a microscope any more. They're just for specialist activities now, and there aren't many specialists, either. But half of biodiversity, you need a microscope to see! The teeming hordes of these things, which are everywhere. They're totally neglected now. Amateur naturalists tend not to bother with them. The sense of wonder you can get through seeing a world you can't otherwise see – that sort of curiosity seems to have vanished."

He certainly makes that world worth looking at in Bugs Britannica. Tardigrades, for example, are also known as water bears, as they "clamber about on their stumpy legs in an undeniably bear-like manner". To survive drought, they can shrivel up and dry out – "and in this state, the water bear's life processes come to a complete stop, and... it can survive almost any conditions." He instances boiling water, pressure greater than the deepest ocean, irradiation worse than a microwave oven, total asphyxiation, freezing in liquid nitrogen, immersion in toxic chemicals, and, for a clincher, being taken into orbit by the European Space Agency, so that tardigrades are "the first animals to have been exposed to the vacuum of space and unprotected solar radiation, and lived". A single drop of water revives them.

Rotifers are another intriguing part of pond life; many are transparent, so all their internal organs can be seen. "Despite being no bigger than protozoa, a rotifer is a multi-cellular wonder of miniaturisation," Mr Marren writes. "It has a nervous system as well as a digestive gut, sex organs, a heart and a brain, all packed into a space smaller than a full stop."

Who looks at them now? Modern field guides on pond life, Mr Marren complains, have three or four plates on the microscopic side of it, whereas once they had dozens. "A lot of kids had microscopes then, but kids don't have microscopes any more. It's also that ponds are disappearing; every farmer's field had a pond in the corner, but most of them have gone.

The scientists who can't see the fish for the genes

The loss of general familiarity with the microscopic world can, in fact, be seen as part of a bigger picture; the decline of "whole-organism biology". In the past half century, traditional natural history, the study of animals and plants for themselves, has come to be seen as more and more divorced from the cutting edge of science, indeed, it has come to be despised as merely one step up from stamp collecting; what is now sexy, in scientific terms, is molecular biology, the study of an animal's genes.

I once met a marine biologist from Plymouth who complained that he knew scientists who could tell you everything you wanted to know about the genomes of fish, but if you handed them an unusual fish species brought back by a trawler, they wouldn't have a clue what it was.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Mario Balotelli in action during his Liverpool debut
football ...but he can't get on the scoresheet in impressive debut
Environment
Pigeons have been found with traces of cocaine and painkillers in their system
environmentCan species be 'de-extincted'?
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
A Pilgrim’s Progress is described by its publisher as “the one-and-only definitive record” of David Hockney's life and works
people
Sport
Loic Remy signs for Chelsea
footballBlues wrap up deal on the eve of the transfer window
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker
TV
Life and Style
Instagram daredevils get thousands of followers
techMeet the daredevil photographers redefining urban exploration with death-defying stunts
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'
TVDaughter says contestant was manipulated 'to boost ratings'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher - Hull

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are recruiting for spe...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking EY...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: NEWLY QUALIFIED TEACHER WE CAN HELP ...

Lead FE Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, jQuery, Knockout)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead FE Softwa...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor