Apple says that there are 425,000 applications you can download to your iPhone. “Which means there’s almost no limit to what your iPhone can do,” says the Apple website.
How about a piece of technology that has only one application? That’s pretty basic. Even a hammer has two—pounding and pulling.
Meet my microscope, or rather “Magiscope.” It’s one of my constant companions for Potomac River expeditions. Although plain to the point of homeliness, with a single moving part, it opens a window to whole new way of experiencing the river and its creatures.
This very basic piece of equipment was invented a couple of decades back by a man named Dennis Brock. Despite being brought up in a “severely dysfunctional family,” he developed a love for learning and skills for invention.
After being expelled from school, which he hated, Brock stumbled into a job repairing fine quality microscopes for laboratories. He decided that this same quality of craftsmanship was needed at the opposite end of the product line—children’s tools. Brock believed that children should be able to use microscopes good enough to spark their curiosity and give them a unique look at nature.
Brock made a prototype in his garage out of a piece of wood and a brass shower curtain rod. The commercial result was a tough, high quality model of simplicity. It has no light source other than a curved plastic “Lumarod.” Focusing is a matter of pushing the brass tube up or down. It comes in black or red.
Now for My Adventure
I keep to the shoreline: No boat. Just a pair of water shoes, a hat, my point-and-shoot camera and, of course, the Magiscope.
My Potomac safari takes place just upstream from Carderock, where the river gurgles over a stony bottom and around patches of smartweed. My quarry constitutes creatures as exotic and fearsome as any on the Serengeti. The difference being that instead of living on the other side of the world, they are on the other side of large, flat rocks.
I spot a likely candidate, a big stone just off the tip of a gravel bar. I plunge my arms into the water and pry up one side of the stone to break its suction with the river bottom. Its rounded underside has been completely buried in sand and silt. It is a biological desert.
A few yards further I try again, this time with a bigger, flatter rock (sounding fun yet?), and I am rewarded. This rock’s surface is alive with wriggling creatures. The lord of them all is a dragon-like hellgrammite. As I grasp it behind its thorax, its pincers snapped harmlessly in the air.
I slip the creature into a plastic dish, which I slide onto the shelf of my Magiscope. Pushing the brass tube down to focus turns the hellgrammite into a monster, its head filling up my viewing area. What a set of mandibules!
The hellgrammite is the larval form of the Dobsonfly, even more dragon like with four powerful wings. It belongs to a group called Megaloptera. You would have to reach back to the Pleistocene to find a mammal with such an impressive name.
The next rock yields many tiny mayfly larvae, as delicate as their gossamer-winged adult forms. Another rock produces a speed-demon stonefly that skitters across the wet surface, almost escaping my grasp. On the same rock I find a caddis fly house made of bits of rock and sand, all tied together with silken strands. I coax its resident to pose for pictures.
These creatures are the larval forms of insects known collectively as macroinvertebrates, animals that have no backbone and can be seen—even if just barely—without magnification. Also falling under this heading are animals such as mollusks and sponges.
While known and appreciated by scientists, stream watchers and fishermen, macroinvertebrates are virtually ignored by the rest of humanity.
Yet these same macroinvertebrates anchor a big part of the aquatic food web. They can also be good indicators of water quality. For example, most mayflies are very sensitive to pollution. Thankfully, the Potomac is rich with mayflies, despite persistent threats of contaminants.
Each macroinvertebrate plays a different role in nature. You could even call them nature’s own “apps,” as revealed by my Magiscope. How many are there? Probably far more than there are apps for an iPhone.