Kern's Holler Journal Biology
Under the Microscope, by Ivan Stang

Ciliate City is a rude and lawless place, let me tell you.

I have already compared using the microscope to being in a cop helicopter looking down on a park full of insane murderers. It's also a lot like observing a shopping mall full of hoggish consumers from the top floor -- like a KOYANISQAATSI time-lapse shot of Grand Central Station -- only all the busy shoppers and travelers are cannibals, falling upon each other in packs.

Many of the tiny booger-bears look cute at first. The most common visible species is a semi-transparent little barrel-shaped fellow that Wei and I first called "Fat Boys" but have since learned are properly called Coleps. Seen through a stereomicroscope at 60X they look like mobile rice. At 100X through a microscope they resemble swimming baskets with a huge mouth at one end. They dart about scavenging. I remember being delighted when I saw what appeared to be a perfect ring of these fellows playing with a beach ball. I later realized that the beach ball was a spherical life form and the Colepses were sucking the life out of it.

Similarly, I watched the tragic Death of a Gastrotrich as it was gang- fucked by Fat Boys. A gastrotrich is a flat, transparent wormish creature which glides over surfaces much like a snake. I watched one come creeping out of a vorticella jungle only to collapse, possibly of old age but maybe because of an increasingly toxic environment. The little fucker just deflated, like a leaky water balloon. Instantly it was set upon by the Coleps gang who raped it and raped it until there was almost nothing left.

Speaking of vorticella, these are roughly cone-shaped animalcules that look like plants. You get that a lot. At first they resemble glass flowers -- UNTIL THEY SWALLOW! For they are spring-loaded, and when some hapless being swims too close the vorticella retracts its spring- foot and sucks in the victim, then uncoiling gradually back into position. They can also uproot themselves and float around spinning and sucking and killing.

One of my favorite monsters, and it truly is a monster, is a particular rotifer that I call Randy the Rowdy Rotifer.* They grow quite large and when seen feeding could easily be mistaken for plants. Like the voticella these cone-shaped devils have a retracting foot -- in this case armored, but telescoping -- so when they suck and swallow they undergo a revolting contraction that somehow resembles a fat pulsing human peeder with too much foreskin. Offsetting that look is the wheel of cilia and powerful clamping jaws that it has for a mouth. Randy the Rowdy Rotifer's little root-like foot is quite powerful; I saw one literally walking a tight-wire, an incredibly thin and fragile string of single-cell fiber. Normally he crawls. Once he gets moving he looks much like an inchworm crossed with an amoeba.

He is transparent (most of the booger-bears are) and after he eats YOU CAN SEE TINY THINGS SWIMMING INSIDE OF HIM.

Just as I was thinking that Randy was surely the largest thing in my water droplet, along came a nematode -- a violently writing worm, a Tubifex or maybe a Dero (!!) -- that looked like the Cloverfield
Monster by comparison, completely dwarfing Randy.

I can tell you that a nematode and for that matter any microannelid, is one dumb motherfucker. I watched the same worm get trapped in a mess of algae, writhe for HALF AN HOUR to get free -- that's about all
they do their whole wee lives, writhe -- then immediately run into ANOTHER clump of algae and do it all over again. I suppose it would help if they had eyes instead of mere photo sensors.

I tell you, it is like ON BEYOND ZEBRA or the lower depths of
McElligot's Pond. You never know what you'll see next.

I watched a curious thing that I called a "flea-turtle" worrying at everything it touched. It was crawling on surfaces, not swimming. It seemed cute. I think it is called a Europlotes. After some reading I realized that was I had been watching was this creature KILLING and KILLING and KILLING.

But even the monsters have monsters. I saw a Fat Boy, a Coleps, swimming around with a spiky ball somehow attached to its butt. I read subsequently that I had seen a vampiric Podophrya parasitizing and killing the Coleps by sucking everything out its butt.

I espied a VERY "large," very fast Darting Horned Devil, a kind of rat- crab-spider, which I now think was a copepod, possibly the one with the cool name of Cyclops. I am still actively hunting this elusive though large animalcule.

The single ugliest thing I've seen was some kind of miniscule dead spider floating on the water surface in my Petri Dish of Horror. I say spider, but it looked more like a Face Hugger from ALIEN with a shell
on it. I have found numerous hideosities floating on the surface in that Petri dish even though it is rarely open to the air. I guess that those disgusting things are the same things we routinely inhale or swallow without ever knowing.

This is such a COMFORTING hobby in that respect. You find yourself washing your hands a lot.

Yesterday marked my greatest moment yet in the Petri Dish of Horror. For I finally bagged my first water bear. Actually I did not so much bag him as simply locate him. I don't think they can be killed; water bears are more or less immortal.

Water bears or tardigrades are large for microlife, and can be found on just about any moss or lichens, even if only in egg form. My first chunk of moss in the dish produced no bears. Yesterday, however, I picked some moss from the base of a tree and dropped a piece in the Petri Dish of Horror. After about 15 minutes my tenacity was rewarded, for I found myself nearly PUKING upon first sight of a living tardigrade.

Up close and in your face, they are every bit as disgusting as I expected. Princess Wei thought he was CUTE. And they do look like fat little transparent bear cubs, only with 8 stubby legs instead of 4, and squishiness. They are also called "moss piglets" because they resemble naked squirming vomit-inducing newborn piglet preemies.

I watched my new pet Wally the Water Bear for at least half an hour. He is not the brightest bulb in the home lighting store, I can vouch for that. He spent several minutes on his back THINKING he was walking, because his legs were moving… I was tempted to try to set him upright, but previous experience, a vain attempt to help a tangled nematode, taught me that trying to meddle in the affairs of these creatures always backfires. It just shows you what kind of problems God (or Bender) encounter when they try to directly influence their wee charges.

Funny how every day I feel fewer and fewer moral qualms about maintaining these two concentration camps of microlife, the Petri Dish of Horror and the Jar of Life. Every day I add a sample vial from some new puddle or garden and every day there are two or three new species to observe in their desperate throes. Of course I pity the mindless things, a LITTLE, but there are infinitely more where they came from, and the research is more important than the individual 10-day lifespans of these animalcules.

This must be what real scientists and gods feel like all the time.

* Called a Philodena. Figures.