Microscopic Shellfish and Gastropods of Coastal BC: how the study works

    Microscopic Clams and Snails

    Bill Merilees has been studying interesting clams and snails for almost 20 years. He is achieving remarkable results using relatively simple scientific tools and procedures.

    He notes that all the shell reference books contain pictures of the big and showy species that are easily spotted on the beach. Not surprisingly there are many more tiny species there that are so small that they escape our casual gaze.

    These are the focus of his study. It’s a project that he has taken on for himself – a great example of effective citizen science. His goal is to document all the species present on our coastal beaches. Turning up species new to our province or even to science has been a regular occurrence.

    The Procedure

    Bill selects a sampling site at the day’s location from somewhere from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Haida Gwaii. Visiting new (for him) destinations is a magnet draw. He likes to arrive at the site just before low. Rocky beaches are preferred. He looks for a suitable site to sample (which in this case is on or under a rock).

    His tools are very ‘low tech’ – a plastic bucket, zip-loc bag, pencil, field note book and a plain metal soup spoon. A pocket digital camera is a recent addition to the tool kit.

    He uses the spoon to scrap an area about the size of a dinner plate down to bare rock. The scrapings are transferred into a zip-loc bag. He records data about the site into his field note book. The sampling does not take very long, just a few minutes.

    Rocky beach areas are usually very slippery, so care is always required while moving. He carries a long-handled “gentleman’s shovel” as a walking aid for balance.

    Recording Data

    Bill uses a small bound notebook in the field to record the vital information on the site location and sample acquisition process. He records the date, the location, the sample number, height of the tide, and other observations such as the estimated size of the sample area. The data in the notebook is later very carefully transcribed into a permanent record in his computer at home.

    The zip-loc sample bag is carefully numbered so that the sample will not be confused with any others once back at home.

    Processing the Sample

    1. Bill has a sink in his garage which is a convenient location for processing. This is usually at home but anywhere that there is running water works for him. He places the sample in a wash basin really rinses the ‘gunk’ with freshwater and shakes it well to separate the unwanted light debris from the other heavier material that sinks to the bottom.

    2. The sample is sieved under flowing water through two home made sieves. One is a 5mm screen and the other is a 1mm screen.

    3. It is the 1 – 5mm screened material that interests him – but when I took the leftovers (<1mm in size) I was amazed to see a myriad of small marine organisms in the sample. It could have kept me going for a couple of days - particularly if I had saved individual specimens for identification.

    4. Bill then takes his sample and spreads it, one teaspoon full at a time, on a plate that he has ruled into strips (a rudimentary grid). The parallel lines equal the field of vision of his dissecting 10x microscope. This allows him to systematically scan the whole sample without missing anything. He moves the plate to bring new material into the field of view. This ensures that he will not accidentally count specimens more than once. He removes all clams and snails one at a time with very fine tweezers (forceps). He drops them into a small container of alcohol.

    5. The picked material is later segregated by species identification and an accurate count made for the record. Once preserved, the sample is dried, sorted by species, counted and recorded.

    Storing the Specimens

    Interesting and unusual or new specimens are set aside with the remainder of the sample saved for future reference. Bill uses glass vials – each one carefully labelled and stuffed with cotton batting for long term storage. Nothing is thrown away

    Some specimens of interest are carefully glued on small cards to be photographed and are held in a separate collection. These might be examples of new species that he has found – or ones suspected as being new to science.

    Another skill set Bill possesses is woodworking – he built all his own storage cabinets and designed special holders in the drawers to hold the specimen tubes in place.

    A mentor of Bill’s, Dr. Ian McTaggert-Cowan always told him “A project is not finished until the paper work is completed.” To him this meant the results were published or distributed.

    The long-term goal of this labour of love is to record and document all the inter-tidal clam and snail species for British Columbia in a photographic reference work. He is working closely with a colleague, Rick Harbo, which he appreciates very much.

    Bill reflects on his project saying “The shapes, colours and diversity of British Columbia’s inter-tidal micro-clams and snail fauna is something to celebrate. I do that by sharing it all with others! These mini-molluscs are at the base of the oceanic food chain.”

    Categories: Equipment, Techniques

    Richard Long – Maintaining and Servicing Microscopes for 40 Years

    Richard Long has been servicing microscopes and delicate scientific instruments for more than 40 years. If you need your microscope cleaned or serviced he is your contact in British Columbia. After many years use or storage most instruments need a professional cleaning and lubrication. Perhaps your microscope needs a repair? Richard may be able to help – or he can give advice if it is not worth repairing.

    I met Richard Long early in my renaissance experience with microscopes about five years ago. He helped me obtain my first new instrument. I learned a lot from him as he helped me set it up and I have kept in touch with him ever since. He went into semi-retirement a couple of years ago and I presumed that others would take his place. I was wrong. There are very few qualified microscope technicians in western Canada and they are difficult to identify. I recently had my instrument serviced and was impressed with the service I received.

    Richard is a very good teacher – he knows all the ‘ins and outs’ of using a compound microscope or stereoscope. I am hoping that we can organize a course in the future so he can instruct us all in the techniques of properly operating a microscope. I would also like to get tips on using darkfield or phase contrast equipment as many new scope come equipped for these functions.

    Contact Labserv

    His company is called Labserv, it is located in the lower mainland of BC (he will give you the address when you contact him) and he now works out of his home. You can reach Richard Long by telephone (604) 218-3429 or by email at labserv@telus.net.

    Categories: People

    Red Tides Off Vancouver Island

    Red Tides

    A couple of days ago (June 2018) I was startled by the bright red colour of the seawater at Mill Bay BC. These blooms of dinoflagelates (a type of plankton) are population explosions that occur in spring and summer. Some dinoflagellates become so numerous that the water becomes a rusty-red. There is a red oil drop containing pigment in each organism that reflects to make the red colour. The small red spots in the organism, when added to a population bloom countless numbers of similar organisms give seawater the characteristic colour that makes up a red tide.

    A dinoflagellate is a single celled organism and most species live free in sea water. Most have two whip-like flagella – one to drive the organism forward and the other to make it rotate. This allows the organism to adjust its orientation and vertical position to make the best use of light for photosynthesis.

    Protoperidium sp.

    This organism feeds on bacteria, diatoms and other dinoflagellates. When organism is caught it exudes some of its cytoplasm to engulf the prey. They prey is then digested externally before being retracted back into the body.

    I took these images through my microscope with a digital camera. This dinoflagellate is a Protoperidinium sp. Dinoflagellates cannot produce their own food but are predators who catch and eat other small organisms. They in turn are prey for copepods and bottom dwelling suspension feeders such as hydroids.

    In Saanich Inlet a localized bloom became very evident when persistent wind appeared to concentrate water on the lee shore. The water looked very rusty red but at times the sun made it almost glow bright red.

    These blooms (Harmful Algal Blooms) can become dangerous because the physiology of other organisms can be affected. The organisms produce a potent neurotoxins as part of their metabolism. Filter feeder organisms (such as clams, mussels, oysters) can concentrate these toxins. If humans eat these organisms they can become very ill, or even die from paralytic shellfish poisoning.

    Beach goers can be affected even if they do not eat affected organisms. There have been cases where blowing wind picked up dried organisms with the toxins and persons who breathed them in or ingested them were affected with inflamed eyes and asthmatic-like symptoms.

    Categories: Other, Posts

    Cool Inexpensive Microscope Choices

    Dr. Elaine Humphrey, the Manager of the Advanced Microscopy Facility at the University of Victoria shared her impressions of equipment in her personal collection of microscopes. She is very keen on getting young people inspired by science through use of microscopes. When they get excited the next step is often the purchase of an inexpensive microscope for home – but what to choose?

    These microscopes may look like toys but I witnessed startling results with many of them when they were demonstrated.

    Carson I-Phone Adapter

    Anyone with an I-phone is at an advantage in that it can now be easily rigged up to couple with the eyepiece of a low cost microscope. They capture truly excellent images. There are several brands that work with a smart phone Carson adapter


    The Echo Wooden Microscope

    One of her favorites is the Echo Wooden Microscope works well and is usable in the field under rough conditions.


    Foldscope Origami Microscope

    Foldscopes come in a nice metal box and is an origami microscope that used to be 50 cents but now costs $2


    Abedoe Microscope

    This one, used with an I-phone is by Abedoe. It comes with a black light source for special applications.

    • 60X zoom microscope magnify lens for universal phones,60X zoom microscope magnify lens for universal phones
    • Bright LED light of the magnifying Glass provides enough light at any dim conditions
    • Great design for inspecting the tiny objects
    • Portable and convenient design, easy to carry with your mobile phone
    • Included a UV currency detector for checking counterfeit currency


    USB Microscope

    I have the pluggable at a third of the price but I find the Celestron is far better with much more resolution.


    My First Lab

    This lightweight, from My First Lab, is a compound microscope is a solid instrument which would work well in the field for a field worker – or be a fine starter instrument for a young person.


    Categories: Equipment, For Beginners

    Larvacean Found in Plankton Trawl

    The larvacean Oikpleura sp.

    Until yesterday I was unaware of these tiny organisms that I found in a trawl with my plankton net in the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Looking at them under the microscope, at first I thought that they were very young fish but experts in microscopic life made a positive identification as being Oikopleura sp.

    They are urochardates known as larvaceans, related to the tunicates (sea squirts). Although they are technically invertebrates they have a body plan that resembles a fish with a backbone. These animals have one of the smallest DNA genome sequences of any animal. They live a very short lifespan of only a few days. They release eggs and sperm into the ocean to reproduce. Living only a few days they can appear in large numbers becoming an important component of the food chain.

    This example was squeezed out of the water drop when I lowered the cover slip onto the glass microscope slide. It is laying alongside the edge of the glass cover slip and I just happened to notice it when I was scanning the slide for interesting targets.

    They carry captured debris in tiny nets which, when they get clogged, are abandoned and eventually sink to the bottom. Carrying remnants of their food (bacteria and phytoplankton) this moves the Carbon from the atmosphere sequestered by phytoplankton as biomass back into the chemical form. In the process they become an important food source for larger organisms. These ‘nets’ are a significant portion of the ‘white snow’ that is observed in the water column slowly sinking to the ocean bottom.

    Categories: Animals

    Rick Howie is a Micro-Naturalist

    Kamloops-Based Naturalist

    Rick Howie is a professional biologist with fifty years experience. His career has taken him across Canada while working in National Parks. For the last forty years he’s been based in central British Columbia.

    Rick Howie

    Rick Howie worked for Parks Canada as well as BC Provincial Parks and the BC Wildlife Branch for a total of 33 years. After retirement he launched his own consulting company which he has operated for 15 years. His work consists of wildlife inventory for conservation organizations as well as wildlife impact assessments from urban and suburban developments. He also conducts riparian area reports to ensure that stream-side developments are in compliance with provincial legislation.

    His interest in microscopy is a new initiative. It aids him in identifying smaller wildlife and plants as part of an ongoing biodiversity inventory he has initiated for the Kamloops area. He hopes to develop some capacity for identifying freshwater organisms that require a microscope to reveal their secrets. He currently owns a Meiji binocular stereo scope as well as a Meiji compound scope, both with camera attachments. The transition from years studying wildlife with a telescope to observing with a microscope has been an exciting new experience.

    Curiously the focus that unites us is sand. From his many provincial and international travels he has generously brought me sand samples to study. His microscope interests are global and he is always interested to experience the specialties of others. Most significantly he is interested in involving more naturalists in the use of a microscope to study and appreciate the natural environment.


    Categories: People

    An Unusual Marine Water Mite in Plankton Sample

    A couple of days ago I used my plankton net and found this marine water mite in the trawl sample. I have not seen one of these before. I don’t know if they have been present but unnoticed in my samples or if it has just appeared.

    This organism is closely related to the much more common and numerous freshwater relatives found in ponds and streams. The scientific literature on this species is not easy to find on the internet. I believe that it is from the family Pontarchachnidae which is the only family of the Hydrachnidae occurring in the marine environment.

    Categories: Animals, Posts

    Book: Guide to Microlife

    In 1996 Kenneth G. Rainis and Bruce J. Russell published a full colour highly illustrated book that introduces the plants and animals you might encounter in samples viewed under a compound microscope. It helps a beginner micro-naturalist to identify and understand the organisms encountered but also offers advice on where to go to find the habitats so they can be collected.

    At the back of the book is good solid information on the equipment and techniques needed to collect and view the organisms referenced in the main text. The book can be read with a microscope present, but of course works best when comparing a live image with the the images in the book.

    Publisher information

    ISBN 0-531-11266-7 Paper bound and published by Franklin Watts (A Division of Grolier Printing) 1996 The authors are Kenneth G. Rainis and Bruce J. Russell.

    Book: Complete Book of the Microscope

    Another Good Book for Beginners

    A big team of authors developed this book about the microscope for a beginner. It is richly illustrated and aimed at younger audiences. In fact any adult would be comfortable reading and learning from the text. Although the book is undated but I would guess that it was published about 2005. It may have been updated since the publication of the copy that I purchased.

    The book is linked to a website on the internet (which incidentally is difficult to find on its own). See https://www.usborne.com/quicklinks/eng/catalogue/catalogue.aspx?cat=1&area=S&subcat=SE&id=834

    Publisher information

    It was published by Usborne.com and is billed as being “internet-linked”.

    Book: Life on the Dock

    A Useful Book

    Michael W. Konrad published a highly illustrated book of the marine plants and animals that can be found clinging to docks, floats, and pilings on the Pacific coast. The book surveys many organisms that are easily visible to the naked eye but to the joy of the micro-naturalist he also includes the microscopic world.

    I highly recommend it to west coastal micro-naturalists. It is competently written, very informative and well illustrated. Many of the organisms will be encountered on field trips and some are suitable for viewing under a microscope. It makes good general reading on the subject.

    Publisher information

    The book was published in 2013 by Science Is Art at Sausilito CA. ISBN 978-0-9832590-0-8 paper bound. The author is Michael W. Konrad. It should still be available from book sellers online.

    Categories: Animals, For Beginners