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Saturday, 3 December 2011

The art of the white dish

Some of the most interesting things to look at are the tiny animals that you will find in any pile of old vegetation, but the trick is to make them show up.  Most small animals are very good at keeping still, because predators are all very good at seeing movement. Prey animals are good at seeing movement, because any moving thing might be a hunter. Our ancestors were probably once both prey and predators, so we have inherited the same ability.

The best way to see life in a rock pool is to sit and watch, but exactly the same method works almost anywhere in nature. Sit still in a tree's shadow on a night with a full moon and you may see possums, bats, birds and more, up in the trees.

Using a white dish makes it even easier to see tiny animals moving. When you pick up some leaves or grass clippings, there may seem to be no life there at all. If you spread the material out on a white surface and wait, you will start to see small animals moving around cautiously, looking for somewhere to hide. You can use white paper for this, but a dish reveals them well and also stops things escaping (except the jumpers!).

You will need either a camel hair brush or some sort of probe (a stick, a piece of wire, an old pen or pencil) to move the litter around. If you do this in strong sunlight or under a bright lamp, any animals you uncover or dislodge will scurry off to the nearest shelter, and you can see the movement.  I use an old white enamel dish, the sort your great-grandmother may have used in the kitchen.

These are heavier than plastic dishes, but they are useful for many things, as you will see above, where it is functioning as a home for ant lions on the left and an algae tank on the right. You can also use the dish, with salt water in it, to shake off the small animals clinging to a piece of seaweed. Fill the dish, swish the seaweed vigorously back and forth in the water, remove it, and look to see what is darting around.

On a side issue, semi-clear 3-litre food boxes make good small tanks. It is easier to see what is in these if you sit the base on a piece of white paper or board.

For land animals, you can turn the dish into a cage, if you use flywire and rubber bands to keep them in the container. Watch out that the contents don't dry out too much.

You can see from this shot how I join rubber bands together and then close the loop with an opened-out paperclip. It is always wise to use two separate sets of bands, just in case one of them fails, and gives the animals a chance to escape, to the annoyance or horror of your family.

Tomorrow, I plan to say something about the pooter (sometimes called an aspirator), and how you can use it.  I won't say a lot, because pooters are still there in  Australian Backyard Naturalist, but there's a video already up on my publisher's website, and I have a bit more to say.

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