Sunday, December 27, 2009

A freshwater ciliate

I am an amateur naturalist trying to discover everything living in my garden.

Some time ago I wrote about the Haematococcus algae I discovered in a puddle in my garden. At the time I enthused about the book Freshwater Microscopy by W.J. Garnett, a guide from another era for the amateur to culturing and identifying pond life. Inspired by the book I recently revisited my puddle and was well rewarded with a number of tiny critters new for me. Photo 1 (click to enlarge) shows three : a) A ciliate (more below) b) what I think may be a cyanobacterium and c) another ciliate that I think may be a paramecium. (As always my identifications come with a health warning. I'm happy to have them corrected).

Photo 2 shows a closeup of 'a' taken at 1000x magnification using my microscope's oil-immersion lens. Features to note about my organism are its large nucleus and the numerous swimming hairs (cilia) covering its body.

Those interested in such arcane matters (those not may like to skip this paragraph) may like to know the specimen here was stained with ~0.01% aqueous Eosin dye then mounted in a mix of water and glycerin with a little added disinfectant (to prevent future growth of mould). In an attempt to render the slide permanent I adopted the 'double cover slip method' . There's a detailed explanation of this here but briefly it involves sandwiching the specimen in its aqueous mountant between two differently sized coverslips, then mounting this sandwich in turn in a solvent based mountant (Permount in my case) thereby sealing in the aqueous mountant against evaporation and hopefully rendering the whole arrangement permanent. (Since acquiring my hobbyists microscope a couple of years ago I've developed a growing passion for making up microscope slides!)

Returning to my specimen itself, I have a couple of basic photoguides to pondlife and from images in these, and the general size (~40um) and form of my ciliate, I was tempted to identify it as a species in the genus Colpidium. You can find some stunning photo's of this and other protozoa here. From the volume of images on the web this seems to be a not uncommon find in pondwater. Unfortunately however, having looked at the equally splendid Protist Images website I'm no longer so confident. The problem is that the phylum Ciliphora (=little organisms like mine with cilia) is broken down into such a large number of superficially similar genera that it's hard for the amateur like me to know that my wee beastie is definitely a Colpidium and not say, a member of the catchily entitled Trithigmostoma, or the Drepanomonas, or the Cinetochilium...or for that matter the Tetrahymena I hear you cry! The Protist Database does give some guidelines for discriminating amongst these genera - typically discrimination involves carefully noting the position of mouth parts, the presence/absence of any stiffer bristles amongst the more whiskery cilia, or the absence of cilia on some parts of the body - but I confess I've not attempted to apply these to my organism since, firstly, the time commitment, my limited number of specimens and my comparatively humble microscope setup would, I'm sure, limit my chances of a successful identification. Secondly, there exists a nagging worry at the back of my mind that the taxonomy ('family tree') of the protozoa may not in fact be correctly established at this time. Certainly, the arrival of DNA sequencing technology is requiring that large amounts of what was assumed to be true about the inter-relationships of different species in other fields of biology is having to be drastically revised. The problem is that what two species look like is not necessarily a guide to how closely related they really are. DNA testing is revealing that superficially similar organisms can sometimes be only distantly related. The opposite is also true. I wrote about this in detail in my previous posting on the Glistening Inkcap Coprinus mushroom. I have no knowledge of the true status for microscopic cilates but I would not be at all surprised to learn that their taxonomy is also undergoing something of an upheaval amongst the professionals. For this reason also I've not attempted a more detailed identification of my ciliate. Of course, my thinking on all this may be entirely wrong. Perhaps someone looking at my photo's can tell immediately what species I have. If so, and you're that person, do please leave a comment.


David Tng said...


I might not be able to help with your protist but I love the concept of your blog and your dedication. Keep up the great posts!

Henry Walloon said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I've been reading your blog on Tasmanian Plants and I can say the respect is very much mutual!

Part of my family tree traces back to Tasmania so it's always been a place of sxpecial appeal to me - though sadly I've never been.