Microscopic Water Bears live on monument

I do not know how many species of solitary bees can be found on the Western Slope. I don’t think anyone does. No one has ever made a real concerted effort to survey them. Actually, I’m not sure we even know all of the insects in this area. I am sure the common ones are known, but there are probably a lot of less-common ones in the mountains and desert that no one has cataloged.

In the last several years, a few of us have been looking at mites that live on mosquitoes and black flies. These mites are so tiny that eight or 10 can cluster on one single mosquito. We have many specimens, but even though we can readily find them, no one can identify them to species because they are immature specimens.

Then there are at least three different kinds of a little animal called a Water Bear that live in the black mosses on the National Monument. These are really cute, microscopic critters that look like little bears lumbering along, hence their name. We haven’t been able to identify them either. They could be new species.

Those Water Bears have a really unique ability to withstand long periods of drying out and hot temperatures. They can become motionless and dehydrated and remain like that for years, but do not die. This is a condition called cryptobiosis, but no one really knows how they do this. They are like the little capsules you buy in toy stores that, when placed in water, dissolve. Then some little, foam, rubber creature unfolds.  To play with Water Bears, just take some black moss, add water, wait a few hours, examine with a microscope and you have your own little Water Bears. It’s pretty cool.

There are a number of Nematodes that are cryptobiotic also. Nematodes are round worms, mostly smaller than three millimeters in length. They live in the soil. They aren’t like earthworms at all because they don’t have segments. But no one that I know of has looked for any of these cryptobiotic nematodes in the Colorado/Utah desert.

Some nematodes naturally attack insects and can be used as biological insecticides. One problem with using nematodes as biological control agents is that they have a pretty short shelf life. One of the problems with nematodes as biocontrol agents is that they have pretty-short shelf life. They don’t survive long outside an insect. This makes them expensive to produce. It’s hard to sell them in stores because, if they aren’t used soon, they die. Hey, what would be cool would be to look for nematodes in the desert that would attack insects! We could just dry the nematode out, and it would last on the store shelf until we added water.

By the time people finish high school, they have spent 12 years being told what humans know. It is a little understandable if they think they know everything upon graduation. I’ve met a few people like that. Some think scientists are like that. If you memorize the encyclopedia, you are a scientist.

However, that isn’t what a scientist is. The scientist’s real job is to answer the questions that we don’t know the answers to about our world. Answering questions like, “How many species of native bees are there around here?” Or, “What’s the name of those mosquito mites and are they a new species?” But that all takes place a little behind the scenes and is obscure for most of us. That is why I wrote this column about things that I know that humans don’t know. There are lots of things that I don’t know — even things in my own backyard. If you can think of a way to answer some of those questions, you can be a scientist, too.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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