I am an amateur naturalist trying to discover what lives in my garden.
Readers of my blog may recall that some time ago I decided to investigate the microscopic inhabitants of some rainwater that had collected in my garden. I was delighted at the time to discover some mobile little Haematoccus algae. Spurred on by this success I recently decided to revisit a similar puddle.
This time the water was in shade and contained quantities of decaying leaf-matter. Placing a few drops under my micro- scope I saw nothing at first, but then began to notice numerous small, semi-transparent, stalked objects, such as those above the number '3' in the microscope photo 1 (click to enlarge). My first guess was that these were some sort of fungal spores. Then one moved!
Zooming in (Photo 2) revealed an ovoid creature with a fringe of hairlike cilia at the front end. You can just about make out one poking out above '2.7' on the scale bar. These cilia were in constant motion and set up eddy currents in the water, drawing in small food particles as I watched.
The move- ments made by my creature were highly charac- teristic. Any small distur- bance (such as a tapping the micro- scope slide) caused the stalk supporting the 'head' to rapidly contract, jerking the head backwards in the blink of an eye and at the same time changing the head-shape from ovoid to compact and spherical. Gradually over a period of perhaps half-a-minute the stalk would re-extend and the head return to its original shape.
My creature had one further surprise in store: I was amusing myself tapping the slide and watching the response, when, as if grown tried of my irritating presence, one of my little creatures suddenly detached itself from it's stalk and swam away!
I'm in possession of a nice introductory, colour Guide to Microlife (Rainis and Russell, Grolier Publishing) and I was relatively quickly able to identify my lifeform as a ciliate, the cilophora being a large collection ('phylum') of microscopic animals belonging to the even larger collection of microscopic animals, the protists (to get an idea of just how large you might like to peruse the 81,000 (!) images on the Protist database.)
Fortunately, the structure and habits of my creature allowed for some further progress: the presence of a contractile stalk, the cilia around the mouth and the fact that my little critter was able to swim free of its stalk all point to it being a member of the smaller (though still sizeable) subclass of organisms the peritrichia (which I read is from the Greek, peri=near, trichia=hair).
Now, had I observed any 'stalks' with more than one 'head', that might have narrowed things down to my creature being in the genus Epistylis. I didn't (though of course absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence), which finally brings me to the (somewhat tentative) conclusion that my little creature is a member of the genus Vorticella. Unfortunatly that's as far as I've got. There are a more than a dozen species in this genus and which mine is I can't tell. I'll be happy if anyone out there can tell me.
Naturally, I'm not the first microscopist to observe Vorticella and a little web browsing led me to two very nice articles (here and here) for the amateur. The latter includes some excellent photos including some of Vorticella reproducing by asexual budding. From these and other sites I also learn that a free swimming Vorticella 'head' is termed a telotroch and the stalk is able to contract by virtue of a contractile bundle of threads within termed a moneme. A paper by Sotelo and Trujillo-Cenoz (available to download here) has some ultra-high magnification electron-microscope photos of this and also reveals that the moneme is responsible for the shape-change the head suffers when the stalk contracts.
On the subject of cilia a quick web search turned up numerous papers and articles. My intention was talk about some here, but since I've already gone on for some length in this posting, and since I'm certain to have another opportunity to discuss cilia in the future (so many microscopic creature have them), I'll leave the topic for now.
Instead I'll end with a photo of a free-swimming little animal I encoun- tered in the same sample of water. The ident- ification of this one defeated me. Am I looking at a free swimming Vorticella or is this something else? If you know do please leave a comment.