Under the Microscope

Kat and I were outside watering our flowers when we came upon a rather disgusting sight. Our rarely used wall fountain was filled with a pool of murky brown water. Apparently, it had been filled a week before and forgotten about and was now filled with who knows what. As I looked over the murky water, only one thought crossed my mind.

Seriously, this looks really gross.

“Quick! Let’s go grab the microscope!” I grabbed Kat’s hand and led her inside to collect our gear. Moments later, we emerged decked out in latex gloves and safety goggles, carrying sample jars, paper towels, and a medicine dropper. As we approached the pool of stagnant water, it quickly became apparent to Kat that she was going to be the one to collect the sample.

“Ew, Mom! You want me to put my hands in there?!” The look of disgust however, broke into a smile as she dipped her hands in to the collect the sample. “It feels cold and slimy! EW!” She broke into fits of giggles as she swiped the sample jar through the water over and over again. When we were finished with the fountain, we headed over to the pool to collect a sample of clear chlorinated water. With two samples, we could have something to compare our findings with, as well as have a nice discussion about why the jars might contain different organisms.

We went inside, took the gloves off and washed our hands. Then we prepared a safe study area. We laid newspapers over our table and brought extra paper towels and hand sanitizer out. Then we set up our microscope slides and slip covers, extra medicine droppers, and of course, our two samples.

Upon looking into the eye piece, I was treated to something I have waited my whole life to see. I saw tiny moving organisms! I called Kat over and watched as her face lit up as she quietly whispered “wow…they’re moving Mom”. We watched the little swimmers for quite some time, wondering what they were doing as they swam towards the larger groups of clumped cells.

Our sample of chlorinated water contained only small smatterings of cells. There was nothing complex, nor was there any movement. This prompted a nice discussion about chlorine, its effects on microorganisms, and why it might be beneficial to use it in our pool. Then we began wondering what the effects that other chemicals might have on microorganisms. Vinegar for instance, is often touted as a great cleaner and sanitizer, what would happen if we put a drop of vinegar on our slide?

It turns out, the acidity in the vinegar quickly turned our thriving colony of organisms into a veritable wasteland. In fact, it was so effective, I began using it to clean and sanitize my slides, slip covers, and medicine droppers!

While researching the different kinds of organisms that can inhabit pools of standing water, I came upon a mind-blowing fact. Algae are more like photosynthesizing animals than they are plants, and they can swim! I always thought that they were rooted to wherever they were and that they consisted of one type of organism. However, they are actually comprised of several different types of unicellular and multicellular organisms. Many kinds of algae will swim to different areas to better position themselves for photosynthesis, and some have even developed predatory characteristics! There is one type of algae that releases a chemical compound that turns the skin of fish into a slime, which the algae then digests.

I knew life existed in puddles of rainwater, fountains, as well as of course, ponds, lakes, and any other body of water. However, I had no idea how extensive and complex that life really is. There truly are massive microscopic ecosystems in every puddle, and they are beautiful to behold.

As Kat and I took daily samples from our fountain, we noticed that a number of living organisms began to reach a peak, before seemingly crashing into large clumps of unmoving cells. After a while, even the little swimmers disappeared. We wondered what happened, did the Ph levels change? Did the algae take over? We began to draw out an experiment, and we are currently in the process of gathering data. We’ll have results soon, but that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, we are having a blast with looking at tiny worlds under the microscope and learning about their inhabitants.

NOTE: If you decide to undertake your own explorations in puddle science, we found these links to be very useful for identifying what we were looking at:

Introduction to Freshwater Life: Contains, bacteria, algae, protists, diatoms, ciliates, crustaceans, etc. Also contains very useful information about each type of organism, as well as experiments that you can conduct with your pond samples.

An Overview of Microscopic Pond Life: A UK based website with great tables for easy classification and identification, as well as helpful links for further reading

Happy Exploring!

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