Saturday, April 4, 2009

Microscopic Mohican

Our Victorian forebears amused themselves with family evenings around the piano or, if they were scientifically inclined, around the microscope. Driven by the desire for self-improvement and by scientific curiosity, it was possible for these amateur microscopists to make genuinely original scientific discoveries - and many did, after first honing their skills with the help of books like those illustrated above: Philip Henry Gosse’s Evenings at the Microscope; the anonymously published Half-hours in the Tiny World; M.C Cooke’s Rust, Smut, Mildew and Mould: An Introduction to the study of Microscopic Fungi ; and the Reverend J.G.Wood’s Common Objects Under the Microscope, a rather shambolically organised volume with attractive colour plates. A favourite method of generating specimens for microscopy was to create an infusion of rotting plant material, and sample it at regular intervals. A whole succession of minute, single-celled organisms (then called protozoa, now known as protists) appeared; a single infusion could provide weeks of amusement for the whole family. I set up an infusion of decaying grass in a jar of water about three weeks ago and the predatory protist above, that goes by the name of Litonotus, is thriving in the scum that’s floating on the surface of the water. It’s propelled by a fringe of rhythmically beating hairs (cilia), rather like a Mohican haircut, at the front end and can change shape readily, engulfing food particles in the distended end of its body. It never rests for a moment – hence the rather blurry pictures. The largest examples are about a quarter of a millimetre long – which is big for a protist.


  1. Hi, the ciliate is not a Litonotus. It is a Blepharismid (most likely of the genus Blepharisma itself).


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.