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The bouquet of bell-shaped organisms you see in the middle of the screen right now are Vorticella.

In their youth, these protists are swimmers, moving around to gather food and grow. But as adults, Vorticella like to settle down, using their long stalks to attach to bits of rock, algae, or even animals.

Of course, sometimes multiple Vorticella find the same prime real estate. But when you’re small, it’s easy to share space, and that is why you’ll find groups of vorticella like this one. It’s not technically a colony.

Think of it more as a community of like-minded individuals. And today, we are going to join them. They may not seem to have the most exciting lifestyle, I hear that.

But even in the microcosmos, constancy comes with its own small thrills. So today, we’re going to stick with these Vorticella for 12 minutes of unedited footage and get to know them better while also meeting some of their strange visitors. We’ve been visited several times now by this delightfully blue blob that kind of resembles a whale thanks to its relatively large size and oceanic hue.

Of course, it is not a whale, but it is one of our favorite giants of the microcosmos:. Stentor coeruleus. Like vorticella, Stentors are ciliates.

And while this stentor is swimming freely, they are known to attach to surfaces as well. These attached stentors will take on the distinctive trumpet shape that they are known and named for, making them look like a larger, more exaggerated form of the vorticella’s bell shape. One of the striking movements you’ll notice happening again and again is that rapid contraction of the vorticella whenever they are touched.

This movement is likely a protective maneuver, allowing the organisms to evade predators and adapt to turbulent waters. This movement is created by a thin fiber inside the stalk called the myoneme, which contracts rapidly into a coil. This movement is very fast, as you probably have been witnessing, but watch carefully and you might be able to see some of those tight coils as the vorticella contract and relax again.

In the upper left corner here, you can see what looks like a cross between a spider and the Millennium Falcon. Now again, it is of course neither of those things. This is a nauplius.

When Otto Friedrich Müller first observed the nauplius in the 18th century, he thought it was its own species—just one of those strange, adult organisms of the microcosmos. But eventually scientists understood that this organism is actually the early larval stage of some kind of crustacean. And in about a minute, we will see one of the crustaceans it might grow up to become.

This crustacean is a cyclops, one of the possible creatures that the earlier nauplius might eventually grow into. The inspiration for its name is obvious: what else could you name an organism that only has one large eye? The cyclops of the microcosmos is, as we will see, a bit obtrusive.

But it is relatively harmless to us—that is until and unless they become host to parasites like the Guinea worm, which can do harm to humans. Returning our attention to the vorticella, while their adult forms don’t move around much, they are still able to gather food ranging from bacteria to smaller protists. They do this using the cilia around their mouth, waving around the small hair-like structures to create currents that will drive food into their mouths.

You may have noticed some smaller organisms swimming and grazing amongst the vorticella. Many of these are rotifers, trying to find the green algae you can also see zooming around. Or you can see them munching on the bacteria and fungi that form the biofilm that the Vorticella have attached themselves too.

It is always so strange to realize that rotifers are multicellular animals, while vorticella are single-celled organisms. And yet rotifers are usually smaller than their structurally simpler neighbors. Like other microbes, vorticella are found in aquatic habitats all over the world.

But in 2012, a group of scientists found evidence of a vorticella in a very strange location: inside the 200 million year old fossil of a leech cocoon from Antarctica. Yes, the vorticella-like organism was also long dead, preserved in the polysaccharides and fibrous proteins that made up the prehistoric cocoon. Ciliates may be easy for us to find in our own microscope samples, but these kinds of fossilized remains are much more rare because their soft bodies make for bad fossils.

The uniqueness of this kind of discovery is matched by just how striking the similarities are between the fossilized organism the scientists found and the modern day Vorticella you can see here. Even in the fossil, you can make out the distinct bell-shaped body and helical stalk that so closely resemble these Vorticella, living right now before our eyes. I don’t know much about microbial etiquette, but this cyclops does seem kind of rude, like it’s just trying to push its way through the vorticella.

Then again, maybe the vorticella are the rude ones, taking up all this space? Or maybe we shouldn’t be pushing our human sense of etiquette onto microbes. Whatever the answer, the vorticella seem to be holding their own quite well here.

While the vorticella contracted tightly in response to the cyclops earlier, you can now watch as they extend back to their normal configuration. You might even see some of the tight coils in their stalks in the moments before they relax. Vorticella were first described by the creator of the microscope Antonie van Leeuwenhoek himself in 1674.

But you know who doesn’t care about that distinction? This cyclops, who is back for round two. For all the smaller organisms that dart in and out, and for all the larger organisms that rudely barrel through them, the vorticella just rolls with the punches.

After 12 minutes of this, I’m starting to feel like maybe I could learn a thing or two from these little troopers. Thank you for coming on this journey with us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us. And thank you especially to all of these people who support this show on Patreon.

They are the reason this small team of people can make this show. And we are really happy and grateful to be able to do it. If you’d like to join them, you can go to patreon.com/journeytomicro If you want to see more from our Master of Microscopes, James, you can check out Jam & Germs on Instagram.

And if you want to see more from us, there’s probably a subscribe button somewhere nearby.