An Eccentric Amateur Naturalist’s Dream Vacation

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA


Having a background as an armchair philosopher allows me the advantage of being able to conjure up a Platonically ideal vacation without having to deal with other obnoxious tourists (yes, I admit that some might find me obnoxious as well) and without having to deal with planes, trains, and automobiles and no passports or visas are required nor do you have to convert currency. I am old enough, sufficiently physically decrepit (I walk with a cane or, in the proper terrain, a climbing staff) and cranky enough that I want to be able to pick my own companion or two for my expeditions.

When I was younger, I did travel a bit. I went through Iceland with its disruptive glacier/volcano Eyjafjallajokull, Finland to Denmark, Sweden, the then Soviet Union, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France, England, and the then East Germany (all of this involved several trips). So, now what with terrorists, sky Marshals on planes, having to remove the shoes from diabetic feet, and take a Breathalyzer test (don’t hold your breath: that one’s surely coming), my urge to literally travel has largely evaporated. I still like to fantasize about South Pacific beaches with coral reefs surrounding them, Polynesian lagoons, Scottish coves with tidepools brimming with wondrous invertebrates–and Lake Baikal–that wonder of wonders for the naturalist and microscopist. Also it would be great fun to take a ride in the deep-sea submersible Alvin down to the volcanic funes to see the giant 12 foot tube worms with their brilliant red tentacles. Fortunately with modern technology, we can do all of these things vicariously, as well as in our own imaginations, and not worry about lost luggage which the comedian Mark Russell quipped is what constitutes the rings of Saturn (which is another place we can travel to vicariously by way of technology. Certainly none of us could afford the ticket price to make the actual journey.)

The ideal is, of course, to combine fantasy and reality (without becoming schizophrenic in the process); for example in the early spring, I can drive about 20 minutes down southwest to Lake Sodergren when the water is still icily cold–in fact, there may still be chunks of ice on parts of the lake–and the wind is almost inevitably blowing, so the air is crisp and brutally refreshing–thus, in such circumstances, it is easy to imagine myself in Siberia, standing at the edge of Lake Baikal and collecting samples which given the water temperature and the altitude (7,200 feet), allow me to anticipate finding wonderfully mysterious micro-organisms which I have never seen before. Someone else may have seen them before, but that’s irrelevant; their newness to me is what matters, the excitement of seeing organisms I’ve never glimpsed before and then trying to get them to reveal their structure under the microscope, followed by the hunt through reference books to try to identify them. However, it’s almost as much fun to encounter familiar micro-acquaintances, especially if you haven’t seen them for a while.

One chilly spring afternoon several years ago, Lake Sodergren provided me with my first specimens of tintinnids.

These are fascinating little ciliates which build their test or lorica (“house”) primarily out of protein, but various bits of minerals are incorporated. Some of the tintinnids have cilia that are feathery in character. These organisms can retreat into their lorica for protection which is, after all, one of the major reasons for such organisms having “houses”.

On occasions when I don’t feel like venturing out-of-town, I have several options. One is to drive out along a road which leads to the Interstate highway. Shortly before it connects to the Interstate, there are gas stations, motels, fast-food restaurants, and some interesting ditches alongside the road which in late spring and early summer have water in them from overflow of the Laramie River. Fortunately, there are some little side roads where I can park and get access to the ditches. With all the billboards, businesses, noise, and traffic I can imagine myself on the outskirts of almost any large American city (Shudder!). Laramie has a population of only 31,000 plus another 10 or 12 thousand students for 9 months of the year–quite a sufficient population, thank you. These ditches do suffer from the discarded debris of passing vehicles, ranging from plastic containers to an iridescent oil slick. Nevertheless, I have found here some wonderful (and hardy) micro-beings. In one ditch, I found some splendid specimens of Nassula ornata which is a large ciliate that looks like a watermelon in both shape and color because it is basically an algae eater. Unfortunately, at that time I didn’t yet have a microscope camera, so I can only give you an Internet link to a couple of images. (Link 1, link 2.)

These are delightful creatures to observe and they move slowly enough that one can observe considerable detail. As I was watching them, I noticed that several of them had a pinkish-orange protrusion at the posterior end. It turned out to be another organism; in fact a parasitic suctorian which apparently specializes on Nassula. It is called Podophora parasitica . Suctorians, even non-parasitic forms are deeply weird. They are generally classified with the ciliates and indeed, in one stage of their lives, an immature form called a swarmer, they do have cilia. After this brief free-swimming stage, they attach to an aquatic plant or another organism and the cilia disappear to be replaced by tentacles. These are hollow like soda straws and can be extended and retracted. At the tip of each tentacle is a sticky disk and the adhesive is impressive because, I have seen organisms as large ( or even larger) than the central body of the suctorian that are firmly stuck to the disk and struggling to escape. What is happening is that the protoplasm of the prey is being sucked out through the tentacle and into the body of the suctorian, thus these organisms are quite aptly named and so, the hunt has been worthwhile even with the noise, pollution and litter. I am once again reminded of and impressed by the tenacity of life.

Sometimes, when it’s not too hot and there’s a bit of a breeze, I make a short drive–less than 3 miles–over to the also aptly named Stink Lake. Many years ago, the city decided to create this lake on the site of what had once been a landfill garbage dump. On still, hot summer days, it reeks. Apparently, we have some residents who have either lost or never had a sense of smell and hold picnics near the lake. Algae, predominately Spirogyra, thrive as, unfortunately do sulfur bacteria. When standing on shore with my very long-handled net, I can imagine myself standing at the edge of a small polluted lake deep in the heart of Africa. In spite of its generally obnoxious character, I have, over the years, found enough interesting micro-beasties to prompt me to sample it at least 2 or 3 times each year, however, usually not at high summer. At times, ostracods, and Daphnia are abundant as well as a variety of hypotrichs, and red water mites are not uncommon.

Surprisingly, these organisms are covered with very fine hairs.

Twice, I have even found Lacrymaria olor the “tear of a swan” in this location. This is that remarkable ciliate that can extend its “neck” up to 10 times its body length!

If one has access to a 4-wheel drive truck with a high clearance, then one can venture out into the high desert, which though miles from the surrounding mountains, benefits every year from the snow meltoff from the peaks. Here one can imagine oneself to be out on the steppes of Russia or plains leading to the foothills of Kashmir. The lakes which I visit are highly alkaline and Lake Hutton in particular is surrounded by low scrub which only achieves a height of about 3 feet and when there is a deep snowbank and a heavy runoff the bushes will be entirely covered with water in the very early spring. However, as the summer sets in, the intense sun produces extraordinary evaporation and by midsummer, the water has receded to such a degree that the bushes are, as it were, high and dry. However, during the period when they were covered with water, large masses of Spirogyra would flourish around the edge of the lake. As a consequence, when one visits the shore in midsummer, the bushes form a miniature sculpture garden draped in mats of the algae and both the Spirogyra and the bushes are covered with a white coating of alkaline deposit–sometimes 1/4 of an inch thick.

One can look up from the lake and see snow-capped peaks in the distance. The sense of quiet solitude is wonderful, except that one is never really alone here. There are large colonies of prairie dogs throughout the area, hawks, and even the occasional eagle scanning for prey. On some larger bushes further up from the lake I found some beautifully iridescent green beetles which I discovered to my fingers’ dismay were blister beetles. And, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the shore birds, primarily the fussy, busy little American Avocets strutting around the edge of the lake and probing for morsels of food with their thin slightly curved beaks. The non-naturalist might, I am afraid, find the rather barren, landscape uninteresting, but, to me it has always been a place that represents both the beauty and the harshness of our planet.

As for the lake, what kinds of creature could live in such a hostile environment? I am beginning to think that hypotrichs can live in virtually any aquatic environment. Hypotrichs are ciliate protozoa which have bundles of fused cilia called “cirri” and the organisms are amazingly adaptable.

They are abundant in these highly alkaline lakes. However, to my mind, the most remarkable organism here is Raphidophyrs, an amoeba with needle-like pseudopodia extending from a spherical body. Here is a site where you will find a couple of images.

The pseudopodia have scales which are siliceous and they are flexible; when one captures a prey organism, it can bring it down to the central sphere for ingestion. However, the astonishing part is yet to come. These creatures are able to “signal” one another somehow (probably in some complicated, tricky biochemical way) and then a group of them will begin to aggregate, their pseudopodia forming a series of “nets” which increase the efficiency of their feeding. Then at a certain point, they separate and go on their individual ways again. This is remarkably sophisticated behavior for such a”primitive” organism.

I should have mentioned sooner that Hutton Lake is located in a federal game reserve which contains a number of other lakes and a few canals which connect some of them. In one of the canals, I have frequently found a form of Daphnia which is a bright orange and, at certain times of the year, they occur in such enormous numbers that the water in the canal appears orange. These wonderfully odd creatures ranging from amoebae to hypotrichs to Daphnids to prairie dogs reinforce my sense of being in some other exotic part of the world and yet I have the comforting realization that I am only a few miles from the comfort of my home and don’t have to be on the alert for pirana or hippopotami.

Next, I fantasize about traveling to the foothills of the Alps and then up into the Alps themselves. Only a half hour’s drive to the West of Laramie brings us to the foothills of the Snowy Range (our local Alps with a central peak of 12,008 feet). As one approaches the foothills, one has several options for exploring and collection. (I should mention that this is also a good area for collecting micro-fossils.) One can go up towards Sheep Mountain and then face another choice–you can go slightly East to Lake Owen or further up and slightly West to Rob Roy Reservoir–both are rewarding. The latter is more appealing to me since it is surrounded by forest and is, in general a more tranquil setting than Lake Owen.

Returning to the main highway, one can then head upward toward Medicine Bow peak where Lake Marie sits 1,000 feet below the summit of the peak. If you feel a bit adventurous, there is a trail that you can climb to the top–remember to pause now and then and breathe deeply. Even at the height of summer, this very deep lake is icy cold and there is little of interest here for the microscopist. However a mile or so back, there is another lake, Lake Bellamy, which is an alpine treasure trove.

When the snow melts off the slopes above it, channels form which flow down into broad meadows that are rich in wildflowers and mosses which slow the flow of the water as it moves down into this lake. This means that there are all kinds of little hiding spots for aquatic organisms and in the lake itself, there is an abundance of plant growth around its edges, unlike Lake Marie which has virtually no near-shore aquatic plant life.

However, Lake Bellamy’s richly vegetated aquatic environment is a Swiss paradise and the only things missing are yodeling and some half-timbered inns. I dare not try yodeling for fear of scaring the moose. The ski area is several miles lower and when winter sets in these high lakes are inaccessible except by skiing or snowmobiling. However, in the late spring, summer, and early autumn, this area is glorious and rich in wildlife including pink snow algae which is predominately Clamydomonas nivalis and which is actually a green alga, but has an additional red carotene pigment which gives it its distinctive pink color; it grows on the surface of snowbanks and tastes and smells like watermelon and is sometimes given the popular descriptive name of “watermelon snow”. In addition there is an array of wonderfully colored flatworms, desmids, diatoms, rotifers, protozoa, on up to marmots, chipmunks, porcupines (wonderful creatures!), elk, and moose. There was a movie made many years ago titled: “Don’t Drink the Water.” Well, here, that’s very good advice. Unfortunately, those beautiful, clear, bubbling and babbling streams often become the repositories of excrement from moose and other ruminants and frequently harbor an interesting flagellated protozoan called Giardia which can invade the human intestine and produce severe bouts of diarrhea. It has the nasty habit of going into a cyst form in the wall of the intestine and then, from time to time, emerging to produce colonic chaos. This is a parasite you most definitely want to avoid, so take a bottle of water with you and if it’s plastic bring it back and dispose of it properly. A thermos is heavier, but more ecologically sound. Sorry to slip into lecture mode, but I get very annoyed when I find human litter in beautiful environments which are sometimes also rather fragile. I read recently that sherpas have been hired to clean up the litter on the trails and campsites of Mount Everest. To my mind, this is not the way to go about creating jobs,–enough, I’m spoiling my visit here to the Alps.

Even in midsummer, right at the edge of melting snow drifts, one can find bright yellow, cheerful little snow lilies blooming. if you are patient and look in the right places, you can even come across small lady slipper orchids which do indeed give me the sense of being in a very special place. Further down above the very wet meadows, one can find a plant with a 1 to 2 foot stalk that has rows of tiny elephant trunks growing on the stalk and so, not surprisingly, the plant is known as Elephant’s Head.

About half way up the range, there is a shallow lake not far from the highway and it has a short cutoff for parking. I have tried to find out the name of this lake, but to no avail–even the Forest Service couldn’t help, so I just call it SSL (Secret Shallow Lake). If you have a pair of short waders, you can venture out at least 20 or 30 feet with no risk. There are 3 organisms that make this a very special place for me. One is Nostoc, a filamentous alga, which forms roundly spherical balls 2 or more inches in diameter. They are a pale translucent green and make marvelous objects for microscopic investigation.

There is a great deal of sphagnum moss growing around the edges and in addition to a variety of diatoms, desmids, protozoa, and rotifers–there are tardigrades; the wonderful “water bears” and for information on these, you should consult the fine article of Dave Walker.

The third organism up here that delights me is a cyclops which is about 3 times larger than the ones I ordinarily encounter and which has a deep burgundy color; also the antennae are bushy and prominent. Unfortunately, when preserved in alcohol or formalin, they quickly lose their pigment.

The one major thing missing in my fantasy vacation here in the high plains and mountains is access to the ocean. Poking around tidepools and digging on mud flats are experiences which no amateur naturalist should miss out on. Fortunately, when I was younger, I had those opportunities in California, Oregon, and Maine. However, now I take delight in exploring the ponds, lakes, and ditches in the rarefied air thousands of feet “beyond man and time” as Nietzsche put it. If you train your senses, learn patience, observe carefully and passionately, there are wonders to be discovered almost anywhere.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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Published in the October 2011 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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