The soil under your feet is crawling with invisible life forms. Well, not exactly invisible, but you can’t see them without the help of a microscope. Most people I’ve met don’t know what a protozoa is, or if they do they often have vague associations with things like water contamination and diseases. Protozoa, like bacteria, are not all bad, and there are many species of them that have different functions. I work in a lab where we take soil samples from farms and look for protozoa and other microscopic life in them. Soil protozoa are an important part of the food web that recycles nutrients into forms plants need to grow.
We often host or participate in events that involve teaching the general public about soil life. Every now and then we catch someone’s interest and they hang around asking many questions, which for us is very rewarding. Most people though, find this topic to be quite abstract and distant, possibly even boring but I personally can’t see how that’s possible.
Here is what soil looks like in the microscope, magnified 400x:
On the left is a ciliate, a type of free living protozoa that swims around and catches food using tiny hairs. It’s super cute and fun to watch. On the right is a testate amoeba, just an amoeba, which is another kind of protozoa, that lives in a shell, or “test”. It’s the round thing that looks kind of like a little basket.
Here’s a video I took of my favourite (yes I said favourite) protozoa, called Vorticella, at work in a soil sample. The quality of the video isn’t great but it’s about as good as it gets when you’re holding an iPhone up against a microscope.
Isn’t it cool though? This creature is made up of ONE single cell, yet it is so complex! In the video you can see little bits flowing towards the mouth. It has all these tiny hairs around the opening which flow in a way that creates a vortex and draws material towards it. These are super fun to watch and after five years I still get excited every time I see one. In a water sample I once saw a colony of over 300 and yes, I went around telling everyone in the biology department to come look at it.
Anyway, you can see that these microscope images have a bright white background. The organisms are clear. There are big blobby things and weird abstract shapes, and basically nobody knows what any of this stuff is when they look at it for the first time. I can see why it’s hard to connect what you see in the microscope with what you imagine it looks like in the soil. For most people, soil is just dirt. It’s just dirt and worms. These images are bright white, lively, clean looking, and rather abstract. People can easily dig in the soil and find earthworms, mites, and beetles, but since these other creatures are invisible to the naked eye, it can be hard to wrap your head around the fact that they are in there too.
So I’ve decided to start a series of paintings that attempt to visualize microscopic soil life in context. How might a protozoa look from the perspective of a fellow protozoa? How might these animals look if they could be captured with a regular camera in their natural habitat, rather than isolated under blinding white lights in the microscope?
Here is the first painting in the series and I am very curious to find out how people will react to these. It was very difficult to avoid making the picture look dark and muddy, since that is exactly the environment I’m trying to depict… and many of these creatures appear transparent in the microscope, so adding solidness and colour was quite challenging as well.
I’m hoping that this series will help people connect what they see in the microscope with what they are used to seeing as soil, and give them a better appreciation of these important and fascinating creatures.