A sideways look at .....

identifying those 'little beasties' to species

by Dave Walker (with apologies for my cartoon drawing skills)

If like the author you despair at ever becoming accomplished at identifying any of those fascinating macro- or microscopic organisms to species level, don't worry! Join me in taking an irreverent look at one aspect of a fascinating but occasionally frustrating hobby. Plus a message of hope for 'dabblers' like me!


The author visits his local bookshop

One of the delightful aspects of amateur microscopy is the sense of wonder you feel when you realise just how many plants and animals there are when you start looking closely, whether it's pond organisms, flies, beetles, mosses etc.

I've been an amateur microscopist for thirty years and I'm still finding groups of tinier creatures I know nothing about but become fascinated by, and I rush out to buy a book to learn more and try to identify them. Ah hah, I'll stop there ... and emphasise try to identify them!

It's always more satisfying when you admire a living creature, to know what species it is (and essential for most serious studies of scientific value). For many groups this isn't usually too daunting. This afternoon I saw a common woodland bird on a walk but couldn't immediately identify it from the brief glimpse and its song. A quick look in a bird book and a listen to a bird CD when I got back identified it. However, even for birds there are many species I and others find tricky, and if I see a warbler or gull I can't identify (two groups that are tricky for the occasional birdwatcher like me in the UK) I'm usually happy to leave it at that.

But I digress ... life gets exceedingly more complicated when venturing into the macro' or microscopic world. Some groups have well over 500 species, and many need to be very carefully looked at to identify even to family or genus level let alone to species. The average amateur can't hope to become an expert in every group they come across no matter how fascinating each group may be ... so what's the solution? After all, we want to enjoy our hobby without becoming very frustrated everytime we admire and study something but can't identify it.

The author realises he's happy to not know exactly what it was

I suspect most amateurs, depending on their expertise and interests, may choose to become expert in a few groups or often just one of the larger groups. For many of the other organisms in other groups they come across that are difficult to identify to species, they could be quite happy just knowing it's a certain family or genus of algae, protozoa, beetle or whatever.

If you've tried on your own to get to grips with a group you really would like to pursue in depth, and it's often difficult just with a good identification guide, there are usually people that can help. There's nothing like hands on guidance. You can attend day or weekend courses, join local natural history or microscopy societies or post a query to people on the web to see if they can help. Most enthusiasts are only to willing to help and share their knowledge, so don't be afraid to say you need advice.

However, don't despair if the dictum 'you must become an expert in a certain group of organisms to do anything worthwhile in amateur microscopy' is not really for you.

If the author was honest, after many years of trying (including residential courses), I can't claim to be an expert in the identification of any group. I now appreciate that I enjoyed learning about the groups at the time but never felt the urge to become an expert. My bookshelves are a testimony to the feeling in my earlier years that I must become an expert in something though! As I look across my 'study' (actually a corner of my lounge) as I write this, I see many worthy identification guides on my bookshelves for groups I'm fascinated by and have attempted to identify to species. These groups include rotifers, tardigrades, mosses, ferns, water fleas, mayflies, stoneflies etc. etc.! They're still very useful and well used books, but I'm happy to go as far as I can at identification and leave it at that.

The knowledgeable amongst you will point out that some of these groups aren't that difficult with some practice, as some only have 50 or so members in the UK. Very true, but I find my microscopy just gets a tad too serious when I have to count the hairs on an antennae or measure the length of some poor organisms private parts to identify to species.

So if you're like me, don't despair you're not the only one, just enjoy your hobby to as deep or fun level as you choose. I take my hat off to the many amateurs who have the skill, patience and dedication to become very good at identifying a certain group of organisms and do original research!

However, after all these self indulgent ramblings (well done, if you're still with me) there is a great contribution an amateur at any level can offer to other people. That is pass on your enthusiasm for a fascinating hobby, and show others even if they're not interested in taking it up as a hobby, that they should appreciate there is a wonderful miniature world all around us!

You don't need to be an expert to do this, although if you can pass on your enthusiasm and knowledge for a specific group of organisms or other aspect of the hobby all to the good. This could be just encouraging your own kids or their friends to look at the world in close up, a short talk at some local group meeting or school, an article in a local magazine or even join me and my colleagues using the exciting new media of the web to pass on your enthusiasm. I hope (says me modestly) that I've finally found my niche in this latter respect and like everyone in the Microscopy UK group, I thoroughly enjoy writing and talking about a fascinating hobby at our respective levels of expertise with like-minded individuals world-wide.

Comments to the author Comments to the author sent via our contacts page quoting page url plus : ('dwalker','')">Dave Walker welcomed. If you'd like to pass on your enthusiasm for some aspect of a fascinating hobby via the Micscape magazine please contact us, we'd be delighted to hear from you!

(The opinions above are of course mine, and not necessarily shared by other contributors to Micscape!)

Have fun!

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