A Daphnia, or water flea, and copepods are among the many tiny creatures that live unseen in our pond water.
by Julie Laurin
I first discovered the Fletcher Wildlife Garden in 2018. Earlier that year, I’d lost the ability to walk independently. I spent six months wondering if I’d ever walk again, if my condition would improve, and if I’d ever feel normal again. While I grew up in the woods in Northern Ontario, up until that point, I hadn’t really explored the forests of Ottawa. I’d just moved back to the capital from Montréal, and my only intention had been to continue working in tech, and pursuing artistic hobbies on the side. It wasn’t until I couldn’t walk anymore that I ended up picking up books on nature and science. First, neuroscience. Then, biology. And then, I read Rob Dunn’s book Never Home Alone. Dunn details the microscopic life that lives in the cracks, crevices, and under our feet inside our homes. So, I bought a microscope.
By autumn 2018, I was walking, running, and biking again. My curiosity led me to discover the arboretum. It took me a while to figure out that there was this space called “Fletcher” nearby. By then, winter was settling in. But, I continued to explore.
As it turns out, there are little micro-animals called tardigrades that live in tree lichen. You might know these creatures as “water bears” or “moss piglets.” Tardigrades are pretty special because they can survive extreme conditions, like extreme heat and cold. They roll up into a ball, and undergo a process called “cryptobiosis.” Once they’re back in an environment that’s safe, they simply unfurl and carry on. Here’s a video of my favourite kind of tardigrade: a Milnesium!
Other creatures I’ve found in tree lichen include rotifers (much like tardigrades, they can endure harsh conditions), and mites.
The microscopic ecosystem changes from season to season. There are several ponds at Fletcher, and I’ve sampled most of them. In the spring, and in autumn, you’ll find my favourite algae of all: Synura. It’s a golden algae, and it only comes out when the temperature is still cool. Once the summer heat comes around, they’re gone.
I also found a beautiful colony of Volvox in the pond inside the gardens. Volvox is a green algae that forms balls. Each colony has about 50,000 cells. Each little cell has a tail called a “flagella.” Both Synura and Volvox swim around looking for light, thanks to these little cells and their tails! Here’s a video of a few colonies of Synura.
I could go on and on about the little creatures that inhabit this world that we can’t see with the naked eye. The worms, the unicellular creatures, the bacteria, the algae, the amoebas, the crustaceans. For example, there’s a little creature called Ostracoda – or more simply, “seed shrimp.” They’re little shrimps that spend their life inside a shell, like this one.
Getting lost inside an ecosystem I had no idea existed helped me realize how big this world really is. When you look at a few drops of pond water through a microscope, you start to realize that there could be hundreds of species in that one petri dish. There could be a species that nobody has ever seen before.
In a strange way, looking at microscopic life made me feel smaller. It made me realize that no matter what’s going on in the human world, this little world carries on. I’ve watched creatures die, I’ve watched new life hatch from eggs, I’ve watched creatures eat each other, and live peacefully next to one another. It’s a sight to behold. We’re lucky to have a place like Fletcher, and I hope that by sharing this with you all, maybe some of you will pick up a microscope and explore this world with me! I’ve written a beginner guide, and I’m always eager to answer questions, so don’t hesitate to contact me.
Julie Laurin is a frequent visitor to the FWG. She first shared her amazing microscope videos and photos with our Facebook group. For more about Julie and the world she is discovering, please visit:
A Tiny World: http://atinyworld.org/