These Microscopic Animals That Live In Soil Are Unexpectedly Adorable

They look like tiny cartoon lobsters, and play an important role in our ecosystem.

July 5, 2017
Juvenile Sminthurinus aureus, Devon 2016
Juvenile Sminthurinus aureus, Devon 2016 Photograph courtesy of Andy Murray

It’s fair to say photographer and writer Andy Murray appreciates the little things. Whether in his garden in the south of England or on the other side of the world, he chronicles the lives of soil mesofauna—tiny invertebrates that make their homes in and on the soil—sharing his fascination (and his beautiful photos) via his website, A Chaos of Delight.

By using a professional camera with extension tubes and a close-up lens, he’s able to take photos with 9x magnification, capturing detailed images of species ranging from 0.2 of a millimeter (mm) up to 10mm. (One millimeter is equivalent to 0.039 of an inch). As far as he knows, no one else has compiled such a detailed catalogue of these mesofauna. In fact, most of us barely know they exist. Yet they play an important role in our environment, helping to maintain the delicate balance of soil by eating fungi, algae, and bacteria as well as generating fecal matter that provides food for other creatures. (Many types of animals and insects can benefit your garden—here are 10 insects you should actually want around your plants.)

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(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today.)

Pseudachorutinae species,  Australia, 2016
Pseudachorutinae species, Australia, 2016 Image courtesy of Andy Murray

It’s their similarity to larger animals that Murray finds especially interesting. “These things have the same problems, the same solutions, they're just on a small scale,” he says. “Some of them live in packs and graze like sheep do, it's really endearing to watch. And then you'll have predators like mites and they’ll attack like wolves. All this could be underneath a pebble.”

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His interest began seven years ago, when he took a photo of a soil animal he’d never seen before. After looking it up online, he identified it as a type of Collembola: six-legged miniature creatures (adults can be as small as 0.4mm) also known as springtails due to an expanding tail-like appendage called a furcula that allows them to leap away from danger. He’s since documented Protura (rarely seen colorless soil animals), pseudoscorpions (tiny, distant relatives of the real thing), Diplura (also colorless and often mistaken for millipedes) and mites, among other species, but he’s most passionate about Collembola.

Lepidocyrtus flexicollis, Slovenia 2017
Lepidocyrtus flexicollis, Slovenia 2017 Photograph courtesy of Andy Murray

It’s not hard to see why: they’re fascinating. Although it would be easy to mistake them for insects, they’re more closely related to crustaceans, with the ability to molt like lobsters, gaining a new set of internal organs each time–which means they can live for up to three years. They have soft, airtight skin that doesn’t get wet or dirty, but which mites are able to attack by piercing it with their mouthparts. In contrast, their mating habits are less fervent: the male places his sperm on an extruded stick and the female wanders over and absorbs it. Murray also credits them with personalities. “They look up at you and they're cute and funny. It's strange because you expect that from a dog, maybe, but it's the same response.” 

Juvenile Sminthurides aquaticus male and female courtship ritual practice, Somerset 2014
Juvenile Sminthurides aquaticus male and female courtship ritual practice, Somerset 2014 Photograph courtesy of Andy Murray

Collembola are the only animal of their size to be multi-colored, and they look wildly different in different countries, especially in the southern hemisphere, where they tend to be bigger and brighter, with unexpected shapes and lumps. This demonstrates how their ability to molt allows them to adapt to their surroundings–something fossils suggest they’ve been doing for at least 400 million years.  “They can change shape, they can change size, they can change the amount of eggs they lay so they can come into a new situation and take it over really easily,” says Murray.

Dicyrtomina minuta
Dicyrtomina minuta Photograph courtesy of Andy Murray

What they can’t cope with is sudden change, meaning their existence is under increasing threat. Modern agricultural techniques like logging and ploughing bring insects and mesofauna to the surface, displacing their habitats and making them more likely to become extinct. (Disturbing the soil also releases carbon into the atmosphere—here’s the big reason you should switch to no-till gardening.) A 2009 report by The European Commission's Joint Research Centre estimated that we’re losing 15,000 to 30,000 species a year (the natural rate of extinction is 12), including soil animals. Murray has witnessed this himself. “I've been in New Zealand for a while looking at springtails and there's this certain forest species which fifty years ago were ridiculously common. I spent weeks trying to find one in the area where it's been recorded in the thousands and they're just gone.”

Isotomurus plumosus and baby Sminthurides aquaticus, Yorkshire 2015
Isotomurus plumosus and baby Sminthurides aquaticus, Yorkshire 2015 Photograph courtesy of Andy Murray

Murray initially only researched Collembola and other soil mesofauna out of curiosity. But the more he learned, the more he wanted to share. He’s given talks to schoolchildren and to the Department of Conservation in New Zealand and while he doesn’t have any scientific training, he hopes his enthusiasm and ability to speak in layperson’s terms help inspire enthusiasm about these tiny animals and their importance to the ecosystem. In general, he hopes that his work might encourage people to have a greater appreciation for nature. “The outside world has an impact on your inner world,” he says. “It makes you more empathetic because you're always thinking when you’re walking around what effect you have on things.” 

Related: 8 Amazing Ways Nature Can Heal You

Katianna species, Tasmania 2014
Katianna species, Tasmania 2014 Photograph courtesy of Andy Murray

Of course, animal welfare is a concern when he’s working, especially because many mesofauna aren’t usually exposed to light, so he tries to find the right balance between taking photos and leaving them alone. It’s taken him years of practice to capture shots quickly and he’ll often shoot at different focal points and then combine them on his computer later for the best, most detailed result.

Few of us will ever take such stunning photographs, but most of us can replicate Murray’s sense of wonder – all it takes is a magnifying glass and to turn over any log or stone (as long as you put it back afterward). “It's really easy to find these animals,” he says. “They live everywhere, that's what makes them so fascinating. Every single thing you lift up, there's life going on and you can watch for a little bit.”

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