23 March 2014

The functionally invisible world

This is a female booklouse. Booklice aren't lice (although the parasitic lice probably evolved from one of the groups of booklice) and they don't eat books (although some species are associated with them and may nibble the paste in book bindings). They belong to an order of insects called Psocodea [1], which includes 'booklice' (in the narrow sense), 'barklice', and the parasitic lice. The female in the photograph is one of New Zealand's native barklice but that term is far from entirely accurate too, because they're found in far more habitats than on bark. I found her on a lichen-festooned fence batten, where she seemed to be doing her best to avoid the attentions of a male who was displaying vigorously at her.

Many years ago, this unmistakable species was included in the genus Myopsocus. Later, it was transferred to the horribly-named genus Phlotodes (which sounds to me like something you might find honked into a handkerchief); it stayed in that genus for a few years before being shifted back to Myopsocus. Now, apparently, someone has moved it to the genus Nimbopsocus, a name roughly ten times longer than its owner even without the part that identifies the species: australis.

What often strikes me about these kinds of tiny creatures is the way they're unknown to most people. I'd be amazed if the number of New Zealanders who'd ever noticed Nimbopsocus australis [2] got beyond double figures. This species is fairly easy to find: just look closely at anything with a good growth of lichen and eventually you're likely to see either the adults or the herds of nymphs (which cluster in mobs like tiny wildebeest, grazing on algae, fungi and lichen). But who bothers to look? A few oddballs like me; weirdos who get more delight out of peering at lichen-encrusted fence battens and stockyard railings than polishing their Holdens; eccentrics who'd rather know about barklice than Bathhurst. They (these barklice, not me) are beautiful to look at, and the antics of the males when displaying to the females are hilarious (but the same is often true of us, although I've yet to see some bloke doubled over with his head on the ground, waving his arms in the air behind his back, and rocking from side to side).

They're not just beautiful, though: they're fascinating too. Think about everything needed to allow an insect's tiny body to be called 'alive' — the complexity of that astonishing number of structures and processes packed into something so small we overlook it unless it stings us or drowns in our soup. Despite our remarkable advances in engineering, an insect remains utterly beyond our ability to construct; compared to the little barklouse in this photograph, a V8 Supercar is about as complex as a brick.

In short, they're worth watching and thinking about (although I'm unlikely to have convinced the petrolheads [3] I've just antagonised). Yet hardly anyone does watch them — not just barklice, but most of the thousands of species of tiny animals that surround us every day. We don't even see them. They're out there in plain view, but functionally they're invisible.

1. Psocodea is sometimes considered a superorder comprising the order Psocoptera ('booklice' and 'barklice') and the order Phthiraptera ( parasitic lice).
2. More photographs in this NZ NatureWatch entry.
3. I'm using 'petrolhead' in the sense of definition no. 2 in the wiktionary entry.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

09 March 2014

Nietzsche on the No. 1 Line track

When I came around the corner just above the Stinkhorn Step, Nietzsche was sitting beside the track with his head in his hands.
   "Cheer up," I said, "it's not far to the top now."
He looked up.
   "Is it hard?" he said.
   "No. Pretty straightforward. There's a steep, slippery bit, but it won't kill you."
He groaned and put his head back in his hands.
   "Buggerit," he said.
   "It's not that bad. You'll get up it easily."
   "No!" he shouted. "What's the use if it's easy? I want adversity! My soul cries out for hardship!
   "Oh, ... I see," I said. 
He looked so downcast at the prospect of not encountering something that might kill him that I thought I should try cheering him up.
   "It's nice at the top. Bitterly cold; showers of sleet. You could get frostbite or hypothermia."
   "Yep. Only the strong survive up there."
He looked a little less despondent. 
   "How long did you stay?" he asked.
   "Didn't even stop," I lied. "Just turned around and got out of there."
   "Hmph." He looked away: the kind of not-looking that people do to dog turds on footpaths.
   "You'll like it up there," I said, not put off by his dog turd not-look. "You get to look out over the world. Everything's beneath you. It's like an eagle's nest."
He grunted something noncommittal, but I could tell he'd started to warm to the idea that freezing to death might be possible. I decided to leave him to make up his mind so he wouldn't think he'd been persuaded by one of the bungled and botched.
   "See you later," I said, and left him muttering into his moustache.

A little further on, I recognised the corner above the Stinkhorn Step. When I rounded it, Nietzsche was sitting there with his head in his hands. He looked up.
   "Are you a demon?" he asked.

Note: Mostly just a bit of fun, based on my rudimentary knowledge of Nietzsche's philosophy. If it perplexes you, this might help, at least with the last bit. 
Photograph: The No. 1 Line track near its beginning. Nietzsche wasn't there when I photographed this—perhaps he was nearer the top in the lousy weather, not being killed.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor