Photographs of microscopic aquatic animals capture complex life stages in ways not possible in standard textbooks.

Studying the development of marine organisms is crucial to tackling larger questions about the structure of ocean ecosystems. One of the best ways do so is to literally watch the animals as they grow up, says Bruno Vellutini, a biologist at the University of São Paulo. He uses these photographs to document the various stages of the Echinoderms he studies. “We pick up the adults while snorkeling, take them back to the lab, take the gametes out, and make cultures of the embryos,” he says. “Then we can take pictures of live organisms under the microscope.”

Invertebrates account for more than 95 percent of the organisms on Earth. Many, such as the sea biscuits and marine worms seen here, are found only in the ocean, where they undergo complex life cycles.

Different light sources reveal different structures. Pluteus larvae showing red-pigmented cells under white light reveal their skeletons under polarized light. Crystals embedded in the bony tissue pop out as reds, pinks, oranges, and blues.

Putting these creatures on film, says Vellutini, provides students with material unlike any available in standard textbooks or even online. “When you actually see it,” he says, “besides being very beautiful, it’s extremely informative.”

Alvaro Migotto, a University of São Paulo expert on Cnidarians—a group including jellyfish, sea anemones, and marine worms—also relies heavily on live photography. “Traditional methods damage the fragile organisms,” he says, “they shrink, contract, and you lose the important features that could be seen if you had the animal alive.” Migotto raises his jellyfish in aquariums so they can be photographed in natural conditions as they morph from polyps to fully grown medusae.

Velutinni, Migotto, and their colleagues Alberto Lindner and Inácio D. da Silva Neto recently displayed their photos in “Oceano,” an exhibit at the São Sebastião Office of Culture and Tourism. “We made this collection for research and for our students,” says Migotto, “but the public is becoming very interested.” Vellutini agrees, “We’ve definitely attracted the attention of future biologists.”

Originally published March 18, 2010

Tags ecology education research

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