Pondering Pond Scum Could Pay Off

Feb. 24, 2016

It’s a window into a micro-cosmos in which tiny transparent shapes float in an ethereal tableau. Some are round, some square, and others are like animated snowflakes. Pondlife, an eight-month old Instagram feed and website, offers us a glimpse of an awe-inspiring unicellular world.

The fascinating images and videos are captured by Sally Warring, a Ph.D. student at New York University. Warring collects water samples from the New York City’s rivers, canals, parks, and puddles. Using an iPhone and a microscope, she reveals the dynamic activities of New York’s tiniest single-celled organisms. She shares her discoveries at www.pondlifepondlife.com and on Instagram (pondlife_pondlife) where today she has about 8,857 followers.

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Visitors can observe algal blooms from the Harlem Meer, green algae from a garden pond in the Bronx, or symbiotic relationships formed by cyanobacteria in a sample that’s sat in her windowsill for a month. Each post illustrates some insightful tidbit about unicellular creatures and their behaviors. Algae and cyanobacteria emerge and interact along with other creatures that she lovingly refers to as “urban phycology.”

Warring’s posts are pleasantly didactic. As she shares images of cyanobacteria she explains their profound significance: they were the very first photosynthetic organisms on earth and were most likely responsible for oxygenating the atmosphere. Cyanobacteria allowed O2-dependent creatures like us to evolve. This revelation offers proof that the earth’s tiniest inhabitants often reveal the most significant scientific insight.

We learn about the translucent shell of a diatom, the bacteria-filtering cilia of a vorticella, the sticky, food-catching axiopoda of a heliozoan. It’s mesmeric. And it makes me wonder what other wisdom lies beneath water’s surface.

Perhaps there’s an algae-based idea capable of improving our water purification processes or a single-celled solution to energy storage that could catalyze battery innovation. Warring’s Pondlife posts show us that exciting things happen when we look closely.
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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