It’s officially summer! That means swimming, playing outside and sleep-away camp! That said, kids (and thus parents) will suffer those days when there is no camp, the weather is uncooperative or boredom seems insurmountable. I say those days are perfect for indulging in a little weird science.
Any activity involving cryptobiosis has got to be pretty cool, right? I too at times wish I could enter an ametabolic state whenever my environment isn’t to my liking. You know, when it’s too cold, if there isn’t enough oxygen, or if I really don’t feel like going to a staff meeting because it’s Friday and the boss just told us about it this morning.
In the cryptobiotic state, all metabolic procedures stop, which prevents reproduction, development and repair. A cryptobiotic organism can essentially live indefinitely until environmental conditions return to being hospitable. When they come to, they are just as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as before. Sounds fantastic.
In 1957, Harold von Braunhut took advantage of these specimens of everlasting youth and marketed the heck out of Sea Monkeys (brine shrimp) to the kiddies. I’m sure this was much to parents’ chagrin. “What do you want? Tiny freeze dried shrimp? But you have video games and a Polly Pockets … and we had shrimp for dinner last night!” It was the more expensive, smellier pet rock of our day.
Even so, we wanted them badly. When we got them, we were amazed by their ability to spring back to life after living in a packet of borax and salt. Then we would accidentally kill them by forgetting to feed them their yeast and Spirulina diet. Or we’d be disappointed that they did not, in fact, look like this as Joe Orlando of Mad and DC Comics fame told us they would.
But ye of little faith, there are creatures lurking out there that actually warrant our examination and admiration. Many of them live in the closest lake instead of a kit. To encourage your kids to indulge their marine biology side may we suggest sending them outside in their rain gear with a mason jar? Set them up with a microscope and other appropriately scientific tools, and watch them discover marine life in their own neighborhood.
These are my favorite of the bunch. (What, doesn’t everyone have a favorite microorganism?) They can be found in most streams, lakes and ponds. Like brine shrimp, these little guys live indefinitely, but they do so without going into a tiny coma. Their superpower? Regeneration.
They reproduce by creating miniature versions of themselves on their tubular bodies that then break away when mature. Oh, did we mention they poison their prey? Hydra have a mouth surrounded by one to 12 tentacles. Each tentacle has stinging cells containing specialized structures called nematocysts that look more like miniature light bulbs than agents of death. When triggered by contact with something edible, the contents of the nematocyst are explosively discharged, firing paralyzing neurotoxins into the unsuspecting visitor. Hydra are the ultimate super villains of the underworld or I mean pond.
Chlamydomonas are small flagellates, meaning they are propelled through the water by two whip-like structures. They have one large chloroplast and make food from sunlight. Chlamydomonas can be found in moist soil, so they’re a good option if you don’t have a nearby body of water.
Their superpower is that they can see. They have an eyespot that allows them to gravitate toward light. I know, I can see too. So what? What makes that so cool is that unlike the hydra, Chlamydomonas don’t belong to the Kingdom Animalia. They’re basically one-eyed algae. You have to admit — a non-animal that can see is kind of cool … and totally creepy.
These little arthropods have two eyes and look kind of adorable in a weird crustacean-y way. They can swim and their spines are on the bottom of their bodies but most of their time is spent being lured and eaten by the hydra. If the hydra is a super villain, the macrothrix are the civilians that need rescuing.
Ah the good old-fashioned amoeba. This is the organism most often studied in classrooms. It has shape-shifting super powers and replicates itself. Splitting in two takes about 15 minutes, so mini scientists won’t have to wait long for a transformation. Best of all the slides can be ordered from science supply companies so if you really are waterless, budding microbiologists can still have some specimens to examine. Or you can order this, slightly less mobile but cuter version.
Recommended lab equipment err … fun books and stuff:
To help you and the kids identify more cool marine life, we also recommend doing some background research. This is a pretty good read that covers all the possible critters that may live in your backyard. A little history wouldn’t hurt either, especially if you explore it with a guy who knows his microbiology.
Of course if you want to go old school you can still get Sea Monkeys. I warn you though, it’s more of a short-term venture and the return on investment isn’t great. Our advice is to head to the algae-ridden pond out back first. You’ll be surprised at the weird-looking creatures available to teach your little biologists about life cycles and marine life.
Wait, was that a Sea Monkey watch? How was PETA not all over this?