Saturday, March 19, 2011

Snail Eggs

Some of our project students have been working on the feeding habits of garden snails Helix aspersa and one of our postgrads, Chantelle Kerr, drew my attention to the fact that some of their snails had been laying eggs in the tanks where we were keeping them. I was hoping to see some signs of the developing embryos when I took a look at these under the microscope, but the eggs were disappointingly cloudy. But then, on closer examination, the 'cloudiness' turned out to be something rather interesting. Take a look at the eggs on the microscope slide above and you can just about see clusters of white specks inside them (double click for a larger image), especially in the two at the back.

These turned out to be vast numbers of calcium carbonate crystals, embedded in the outer gelatinous egg capsule. The purple background colour is the result of using a colour filter to improve the contrast - not the real colour of the egg interior, which is colourless. 
At higher magnification you can see that some crystals are simple cubes, while others are aggregated together. What are they for? Well, a quick search of the web reveals  that the embryonic snails use this store of calcium to produce their first shell - the parent snail provides them with a  supply of building materials for a shell when it lays the egg. You can read more about the chemistry of snail shells by visiting the excellent Snail's Tales blog.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Microscopic Living Do-nut

Here's another interesting organism that lives in the temporary pools of water, known as phytotelmata, that accumulate in cavities in the surface roots of beech trees. It's a testate rhizopod - an amoeba that lives in a shell that it secretes - and is called Arcella. It's about a tenth of a millimetre in diameter. The shell in old specimens tends to be brown but this one is nicely translucent, revealing the exquisite sculptured pattern that decorates its surface.

Here's the flip-side, showing the hole in the underside of the hollow do-nut shaped shell and...

... here, with a shift in focus, you can see the amoeba inside, with one arm or pseudopodium protruding out of the hole. The dark structure that you can see in the cytoplasm is a vacuole filled with carbon dioxide - the organism produces one of these to increase its buoyancy when it needs to float up to the surface.

Here you can see the whole organism inside the shell in side view, poised above the hole. The circular structure in the cytoplasm, top left at about 10 o'clock, is a nucleus.... the control centre of the cell.

There are always two nuclei in the cytoplasm of each Arcella.... so which one is in control? Who knows?

And finally, here it is on the move, extending a pseudopodium that it uses for locomotion and food capture.

This is probably Arcella discoides. If you'd like to see some wonderful illustrations of more testate rhizopods take a look at this page, where you'll need to double-click on the images to enlarge them.