biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow flowerpot

The World in a Pot

The flowerpot to be precise

Take a close and careful look some time at what floats on the film of water, when you water your pot plants the next time. Chances are you will see some tiny whitish specks on the water surface, which miraculously appear to disappear the moment the water is soaked up by the soil in the pot.

The whitish specks you are witnessing, actually represent some of the smallest members of the insect world (the Collembolans), or to be more precise the “Hexapoda”. My grandfather, who introduced me to these tiny animals, always had, next to a picture of David Ben Gurion, a huge flowerpot on the right side of his desk, which thousands of Collembolans called home. Some of them had minuscule black eye-spots and could hop very well. They all possessed a structural device, called a furca, which was tucked under their body when not in use, but when released would propel the tiny animal into the air like an object from a catapult (a fast and efficient “getaway” guaranteed). It explains why their popular name is “springtail”. Other tiny hexapods present in and on the pot’s soil were eyeless, unable to jump and white in colour. They seemed trapped on the water surface, but once the water had been absorbed by the soil, they slowly crawled from one decaying leaf or root fragment to another, often disappearing into tiny spaces between the soil particles. These organisms are known as “coneheads and scientifically referred to as proturans when they have no tail filaments and diplurans when there are two tail appendages. As their and that of the Collembolans’ development is direct without distinct larval or pupal stages, you will see tiny, tinier and tiniest forms of all of these pot inhabitants, whether they be called springtails or coneheads.

But life for these harmless grazers and inhabitants of the soil interstices is not without danger. Oribatid mites, most of them feeding on fungi and decaying plant material, but about 25% being predatory like many members of the Acaridae and Ologamasidae families (predatory mites) are the “tigers” of the flowerpot world. Often only half the size of a Collembolan, they stalk the latter (as well as the non-hopping conehead mini-arthropods) as easy and plentiful prey. Being predators, the total number of the mite population is always lower than that of their prey, although springtails and coneheads are not the only animals they feed on. Tiny colourless roundworms are usually also present in flowerpots together with equally thin and colourless microscopic soil fungi. In a well-watered flowerpot of larger size you may encounter white annelid worms not much thicker than a hair.

However, if the flowerpot-world enthusiast is really lucky, he or she may stumble across a pseudoscorpion as the top predator around. Even the mites are in danger from this predator’s formidable pincers, which in an animal of 2 mm body length may account for 50% of the body. The gape of the largest and fiercest crocodile by comparison amounts to just 20% of the reptile’s length. Reduced to pseudoscorpion dimensions, I do not think there would be any animal stronger and more frightening than the mighty tiny pseudoscorpion. And if I earlier likened the predatory mite to the tiger of the flower pot world, then the pseudoscorpion must surely be the “Tyrannosaurus rex” of the flowerpot universe.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2020.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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