Oribatid mites–plunging into the dizzying diversity of the brown food web

BrittanyB, a tuba-playing entomologist extraordinaire, has been tasked with developing methods to catalogue the diversity of our oribatid mites–little fungal grazers in the brown food web. Brown food webs convert the dead into minerals and carbon dioxide; they are nature’s cleanup crews, and a subject of endless fascination for us here in the AntLab. Our latest big project will explore how these food webs work at six sites, from the rainforests of Oregon to the alpine forests in Colorado,  from the diverse forests of the Smokey mountains to even “diversier” forests in Panama.

So, after years of splashing around in the kiddy-pool of ant diversity–our first love, but relatively well known–we in the AntLab are moving into the calm, dark waters of the soil’s meso- and micro-fauna, starting with collembola (springtails) and oribatids (box mites). This requires a dive into the baroque literature of each group’s taxonomists–the high priestesses of biodiversity–and to learn the the secret language of the guild, the road marks and way signs embedded in form. We also must o photograph the little darlings, using cameras attached to microscopes.  This involves fidgeting with lights, angles, magnification, and embedding media (some in the lab were relieved to know that the K-Y Jelly experiment was a flop, sparing them the embarrassment of a tube at every microscope station). Then these images must be stitched together and further manipulated with software. Lotsa variables, lotsa play, lotsa art.

For me, this is magical. For years, having simply counted petri dishes  of “collembola” and “oribatids”, pushing them around into little grey piles before plopping them into centrifuge tubes, it is unimaginably exciting to finally get a good look at what I’ve been squinting at.

So here are a few of Brittany’s first attempts. This is gonna be fun.

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