Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: We've lost touch with the tiny, microscopic things
Michael McCarthy, formerly the Independent’s longstanding Environment Editor, now its Environment Columnist, is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. He has won a string of awards for his work, including Environment Journalist of the Year (three times) and Specialist Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2001. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the RSPB for “Outstanding Services to Conservation,” in 2010 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and in 2011 the Dilys Breeze Medal of the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2009 McCarthy published Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo (John Murray), a study of Britain’s declining migrant birds.
Thursday 10 May 2012
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.
Lord of the butterflies: Clive Farrell has turned his Dorset estate into an insect-filled fantasia
Plastic rubbish heaps at sea pose bigger threat to Earth than climate change, claims ocean expert
Silence to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of last ever passenger pigeon
Conjoined gray whale calves discovered in Mexican lagoon could be world's first ever documented find, experts say
The top 10 weirdest animal mating rituals
- 1 Unseen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chapter deemed 'too subversive' released
- 2 Ebola virus: It's ripped through towns – now the deadliest ever outbreak of the virus is heading for Africa's teeming cities
- 3 Joan Rivers: 'Palestinians deserve to be dead'
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
- < Previous
- Next >
Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are recruiting for spe...
Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking EY...
Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: NEWLY QUALIFIED TEACHER WE CAN HELP ...
£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead FE Softwa...