On microscopy and the joy of SX

A microscope-heavy classroom at FSC Preston Montford!

Ever noticed how so many microscopes seem to be called SX something or other? No? Maybe it's just the really sexy ones. Yes, I expect that's the technical reason for the SX moniker.

Anyway, now that you're here and I've explained my rather poor joke, I'll move on to the real subject of this blog post: microscopy. According to the excellent website History of the Microscope, it is widely held that Dutch spectacle makers Hans & Zacharias Jansen (a father and son team) made the first optical microscope. But ask any biologist and they will tell you that it was the publication of Robert Hooke's Micrographia that made microscopy really sexy.

Flea from Robert Hooke's MicrographiaIf you can recall peering down a microscope at a small organism - such as a housefly - for the first time and being completely blown away by the intricacy and beauty of its structure, you can begin to appreciate how Hooke must have felt in those pioneering days knowing, as he must have, that he was beholding visions not only new to him but new to mankind. The joy and excitement of astronomers watching as the spacecraft New Horizons beams back images of Pluto must come close to what Hooke felt.

But whereas Pluto, until a few weeks ago, was not much more than a faint smudge of abstract ideas - even to 'Pluto experts' - the things that Hooke examined under his microscope were everyday organisms; creatures and plants familiar to us; things that occupied the same space as us. Things that we thought we knew intimately. Hooke must have been completely astonished - giddy with excitement. His whole understanding of every organism around him, even the very stuff he was made of, would have been thrown up in the air.

And we can still capture some of that excitement whenever we look down a microscope at something we think we know. Last year I attended an event called Merefest which celebrates the landscape, culture and wildlife of the Mere's & Mosses in North Shropshire & Cheshire. Together with fellow Shropshire Spider Group member Nigel Cane-Honeysett, I manned a stall where we introduced people to the wonders of spiders! The most memorable thing for me was the reaction of children looking down our microscopes - many of whom had never used one before. I didn't have to talk to them to know when they managed to focus on a spider - I only had to watch their faces or, in many cases, listen to their cries of astonishment! Their joy was palpable - no spider morphology pun intended! (Nigel and Tom.bio's own Charlie Bell will be bringing some spidery delights to this year's Merefest.)

Unlike Hooke, but like the rest of us, children are constantly bombarded with amazing images on TV, social media, websites, etc and we might wonder at how, amidst all of this, first-hand experience of using a microscope can still be so enthralling. But no matter how amazing images are, you can only look at so many before you cease to be amazed; you are looking at images of someone else's experience. When those children (and many adults too) approached our microscopes at Merefest, they could see the spider on the microscope's stage with their own eyes and it was familiar to them. But as they looked down the microscope it dawned on them that something they thought they knew was actually so much more wonderful than they had imagined. That vivid experience of a changing perception was intensely personal to each of them as individuals and that's what so excited them - not the image itself.

The money spider Walckenaeria antica under a microscopeSome biological recorders use microscopes out of necessity; others are drawn to them. Back in 2006 I was a student on the MSc in Biological Recording and I knew that I wanted to specialise in an invertebrate group, but I wasn't sure which one. I eventually settled on spiders for a number of reasons and one of them was the fact that it requires an element of microscope work. There's something about the discipline of microscope work that appeals to me but, above all, I understood that microscopes would reveal the diversity and beauty of spiders to me in a way that my naked eyes could not. I remember the thrill I got the first time I identified, to species, a tiny money spider - distinguishing it from upwards of 200 other species of tiny money spiders to be found in Britain. As a kid I thought a money spider was a money spider and I liked them. Thanks, in large part, to microscopes, I now know better and I love them.

I'm very pleased to be involved now in teaching other people to identify spiders through the Tomorrow's Biodiversity project. We've run a number of courses in 2014 and 2015 - so far largely confined to teaching people how far they can go in identifying species in the field without a microscope (which is further than most people imagine). But I am particularly excited about a one-day course we are running at Preston Montford on October 28th which will concentrate on using microscopes for spider identification. This will gently take people to the next level of spider identification and reveal some of the otherwise hidden wonder of this fascinating group of animals.

For reasons not hard to fathom, autumn and winter seem to be the seasons for microscope work and Tomorrow's Biodiversity is supporting a number of other courses that make use of microscopes after the field season. On November 14th we are supporting a one-day Sphagnum microscopy workshop run by Martin Godfrey of the British Bryological Society. Back in the mid 1980's I spent three field seasons in the beautiful uplands of Mid-Wales studying Meadow Pipits and Skylarks for my PhD. Sphagnum pulcrum (by Martin Godfrey)When one spends long days in the field miles from any civilised facilities, sphagnum has practical applications that are best not discussed on polite blogs; suffice it to say, I have a soft spot for them. They are also undeniably beautiful organisms, often serving as ecological keystones upon which much of our special wildlife depends (including a good-many spiders!).

Of all the beautiful things you can imagine beholding under a microscope, the genitalia of a moth might not be foremost in your mind. But when you look at them under a microscope they are unexpectedly beguiling! Most of our moths can be identified in the field from external morphological characters but there are some cryptic groups where the only way to identify them to species is by examining genitalia. For one reason or another - a discussion for another day - the skills required to prepare moth genitalia for examination and identification under a microscope are becoming scarce. It is very important to nurture a core of people with these skills in the mothing community so that we can retain some sort of handle on the relative distributions and abundances of species that are otherwise recorded as aggregates by most moth-ers. To this end, Tomorrow's Biodiversity is very pleased to be working with Dave Grundy to provide a two-day course on dissection techniques for moth ID verification.

As Charlie mentioned in her recent blog on peer support and mentoring, a legacy of successive biodiversity projects run at FSC Preston Montford, including Tomorrow's Biodiversity and Invertebrate Challenge, is that we have microscopy equipment and space for people to use it outside of formal courses. We weclome attendees of our courses back to use these facilities (there is no charge). Should anyone wish to do so, contact either Charlie or me to discuss your requirements.

Further Information

You can find descriptions and links to all of the courses mentioned in this blog, and others, on the Tommorow's Biodiversity training page. The Field Studies Council run a plethora of courses every year involving microscopy including those that concentrate on lichens, bryophytes, fungi and invertebrates of many different kind. Our publications unit produces a host of relevant ID guides.