The Little Things

A low-flying streak over the surface of Whiteknights Lake turned out to be a kingfisher. Always brilliant, always bright, it alighted briefly on a convenient overhanging tree but was soon gone.

Continuing my walk, I began to slow down. I saw movement on a puddle at my feet, and looked to see several elongated yellow specks dotting about in the water’s surface film. At the edge of a concrete path, rainwater had collected to form a temporary stream that spilled gently over the neighbouring grass. Here it had clearly swept up springtails, the aforementioned specks, which were bouncing in a desperate attempt to stay in control despite what to them was a raging flash flood.

Occasionally a lucky passenger would manage to surf across to an emergent blade of grass and clamber up to safety. Following the nascent stream along, I discovered the fate of all the rest. At the end of the puddle lay a still pool, with a peculiar stagnant film that was littered with motionless springtails. They appeared dead, drowned, but some stirred when lifted onto a fingertip. I gave similar rescue to a money spider. Its legs unfurled and dried like an opening flower in fast-forward, and then the spider dropped from my hand and was gone.

This on the same day that I had become a touch over-excited at finding my first Ptiliid, the family known as featherwing beetles, though it was a many-months-deceased specimen from the back of the laboratory freezer. The world’s smallest beetle, about 0.3mm long, is a Ptiliid. The four that we had evidently caught in the campus moth trap back in July were almost three times as big, but that’s hardly gargantuan. Picture an entire robust beetle body plan compressed to something the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence. Whales have all the space in the oceans to get big, but a creature can only be so small. It’s the little things that are truly impressive.

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