Friday, November 19, 2004

Animate dust

"Wow, what's this?" asked a companion as we walked in the woods yesterday. The leaf litter under our feet seemed to be dusted generously with black pepper. And the pepper was hopping!

Snow fleas. Tiny insects of the springtail family, millions of them, on one of their warm-winter-day frolics. Put your hand down near them and they hop all over you. Lift you hand away from the ground and they abandon ship.

To the eye, featureless specks. I gathered some into an envelope and took them to the biology lab to have a look through a stereo microscope. Of course, they wouldn't sit still. I moistened the glue on the envelope's flap and a few snow fleas got stuck in place, wiggling furiously -- legs, antennae, segmented bodies, and the spring-loaded tails that flip them through the air.

Almost invisibly small, but assembled by their genes, atom by atom -- eyes, mouth, belly, anus, genitals, heart, brain, nervous system -- something like 10 quadrillion atoms in all (by my rough calculation), every one in its proper place.