Consider the ostracod

What does it mean to be a scientist?  I present to you some overly poetic thoughts on the topic.

It was a soggy morning in early Fall when I encountered an ostracod.  I had just submitted my dissertation, I was unsure about my future, I was exhausted.  To celebrate, I went hiking with a party of undergraduate and graduate students led by the intrepid Kathie Hodge foraging for mushrooms.  We had chased the rain but missed its fungal fruit, finding only a small handful of mushroom gold, Chanterelles.  We decided to return home, and on the walk back,  came across puddles housed in muddy tire tracks.  They were teeming with tiny life.  The sleek tadpoles, buzzing flies, and squirming larvae held our attention for a while, but we soon spotted a most unusual creature.

Laying still, it looked like a small pebble the size of a grain of rice, its surface coated in slimy mud.  Careful observation found that the pebble scooted around the puddle in small circles, propelled as if by an onboard motor.  Enthralled, I plucked one and teased it on my finger.  What was this microscopic backwoods clam?  Amazingly, a tiny shrimp-like head poked out, with sweeping tendrils.  I immediately announced we had discovered a lost species of clam-shrimp, and found a nearby coca cola bottle to collect one.  Before we could gather another, an ATV rode by, crashing through the puddles and hopelessly clouding our view.

Arriving at the lab, we armed ourselves with a microscope, and the knowledge of the scientific community.  Kathie immediately decided we were dealing with an ostracod.

An ostracod. Photo from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ostracod.JPG

Observing our ostracod (we named her Sue) scooting around under the microscope was a joy.  My curiosity for Sue was fed by an excellent website by Robin James Smith at the Lake Biwa Museum.  I highly encourage you to visit Robin’s website, especially the images section (I’ve included my favorite sketch below).  Amazingly my initial assessment wasn’t far off: the common name of my “clamshrimp” is actually “seed shrimp!”

A sketch of a female ostracod, by Robin James Smith

The amazing thing about biology is that a simple walk through the woods can ignite an entire afternoon of looking through a microscope and learning something new and bizarre.  I now know that ostracods can produce spermatozoa up to ten times their body length, can be bioluminescent, and can hunt in groups!  Every organism has an untold story, with so much left to learn and be discovered.  And thanks to the unbelievable scope and rigor of science, a discovery can easily climb the scaffolds of human knowledge.  We can just as easily reach the peak, and wonder at the reality just beyond our comprehension.

I don’t think one needs a PhD to appreciate the beauty of the world.  Anyone who is excited to explore life, big or small, is a scientist in some way.  The life of a ‘real’ scientist is filled with lab notebooks, presentations, grant proposals, budget forms.  But these things are carried out in exchange for that spark of wonder that can be found in a muddy pond in the woods, in our blood, or floating in the Atlantic.

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