On a cold afternoon in January, Sally Warring is slowly circling the rim of the Sylvan Water pond in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, gazing into its inky depths. Grabbing a mason jar out her bag, she plies open the lid and reaches for a nearby stick, then dunks her bare hands into the icy pond.
She catches a considerable clump of green matter and maneuvers it into the jar with the stick. “Oh! That’s good, you see that? Really excited about that. We’ll find some creepy things in here.” She doesn’t much care how this activity looks to passersby, a woman stooped over and fishing around in murky water; as always, she’s in it for the Instagram.
Warring, a 30-year-old biology Ph.D. student at New York University, is the creator of Pondlife, an impossibly charming and increasingly popular Instagram feed that puts the spotlight on New York’s smallest life forms. Mention New York wildlife, and most people think of roaches, rats, pigeons. But between the city’s rivers, canals, and even puddles, New Yorkers are never far from a mind-boggling protozoan zoo. With just an iPhone and a microscope, Warring explores the impossibly vast and incredibly tiny world of single-celled organisms, filling her feed with algae, cyanobacteria, diatoms, and other examples of what she calls “urban phycology.”
“Most of life’s diversity is found in these kinds of organisms,” Warring says. “I wanted to do it for a general audience, for people who had no biology background. For me it’s also a way just to communicate, to tell people what these organisms are.”
And what better way to reach a wide swath of eyeballs than Instagram? Pondlife is now around eight months old, with slightly more than 8,100 followers and around 175 posts, a mix of photos and short videos of microorganisms in action. There’s a hungry heliozoan, illustrating why its name loosely translates to “sun animal”; a slender cyanobacteria, glides across a background that could have come from the paintbrush of Gustav Klimt; a ball of flagellates flying around in formation. You might not see Paramecium bursaria described as “kinda like a landlord and a tenant situation” in most science textbooks, but it makes sense.
A big lumbering Euglenid cuddling up to a radial Pediastrum colony, a type of green algae. The Euglenid is green too, but it's not a green alga. It's actually quite distantly related to the algae, on the tree of life. They both have green plastids that are capable of harvesting energy from sunlight, but the histories of how they got those plastids are a little different. Shared characteristics do not always indicate shared evolutionary histories. Evolution is complicated, but it's thrilling too.
Getting the general public excited about these organisms takes equal parts clarity and levity. Part of the trick is really enjoying what you’re talking about, and Warring clearly does.
“There’s a lot of joy in doing this,” she says. “I think that often in a lot of fields, in a lot of sciences particularly, when people are going through school, the adventure and the wonder and all that stuff is kind of lost—the reasons you become a scientist in the first place.”
Since the beginning, that’s been the main goal of the project: to help people feel that same sense of wonder. And as one might expect of a biologist, Warring has diligently charted the growth of her audience. “I’ve plotted the whole thing. I was trying to work out if it was related to how many times I posted, or what it was, but [the growth] seems to be really steady over time.“
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At first, Sylvan Water is too clear for Warring’s liking. “I’m looking for the scummiest parts,” she says. “[A really good sample] would be muddy or it would be green or it would have some color to it … In the summertime it’s no problem, because there’s so much stuff growing in there, but in the winter it’s a little bit challenging.”
Besides the jars, there’s not much else in Warring’s field bag—her iPhone, a rag for wiping pond water off her hands, and a portable microscope for posts on the go.
A shy peritrich ciliate from prospect park. This cell has built itself a house, it's called a lorica. You can see it here surrounding the cell. To feed, the ciliate needs to stick its cilia outside the lorica, but at the first sign of trouble it recoils back again. It seems a little nervous to me, it's a wonder that it gets anything done at all.
“I wanted it to be as lacking in technical things as possible,” she says. “I find that so much of what I do is just ridiculous and kind of esoteric. It’s unusual, but I wanted to make it easy for people to understand what I’m doing. You can do most [of what I do] without any kind of special equipment.”
Most of Pondlife’s content is photographed at Warring’s lab at the NYU Center for Genomics and Systems Biology. When not teaching undergraduate biology, Warring is here doing Ph.D.-related work in parasite research, specifically the genetic makeup of a sexually transmitted bacterium called Trichomonas Vaginalis.
On a windowsill in a corner among the white walls and halls of the lab, she keeps samples from her pond-plumbing outings in racks of specimen tubes. They will serve as sources of Pondlife posts over the coming weeks, growing increasingly denser with life in the lab’s limited sunlight.
Working in bacterial genetics doesn’t afford Warring a lot of time at the microscope, a place she loves to be. So Pondlife also serves as a way of keeping her eye (or iPhone) to the lens. Observing single-celled organisms is what made her fall in love with biology more than a decade ago, she says; as an undergraduate at Melbourne University in Australia, she took a class on microbes that inspired her to pursue a career in the field.
“We spent the whole time just looking down microscopes at crazy creatures, and that was it. I was hooked,” she recalls.
In her lab, Warring warms up a powerful Leica DM1000 compound microscope, and sets a slide containing water from Green-Wood Cemetery above the objective light. She places her iPhone in a gripping arm attached to the microscope’s body and positions its camera over the eyepiece. Using her phone screen as a viewfinder, she spots a plump vorticella pulling itself along by a slender spindle toward some algae cells. Carefully dialing in a balanced composition, she begins filming.
This microscopic monster is a heterotrich ciliate called Condylstoma. It's lurking here among the sand grains, using its cilia to filter small organisms out of the water. It's able to create a current in the water that will suck small creatures into its open "mouth". It doesn't manage to pull in the small flagellate that swims by though. It's a lucky little flagellate indeed. Thanks needs to go to Bruce Taylor of www.itcamefromthepond.com for helping me properly identify all these ciliates. Bruce runs a great blog on microbes too, definitely worth checking out.
“I happen to have watched a lot of movies in my life and suddenly I think maybe that wasn’t such a waste of my time,” she says. “I want it to be visually pleasing. Sometimes I’ll have something in mind that I want to talk about, and I’ll look for something that will help me tell that story. But most of the time I look around and I kind of think up stories while I’m looking.”
And thus ends a day in the life of Pondlife. Within hours the vorticella is up on the feed, met with hundreds of upvotes and excited comments.
Biology “is often presented in a very dry way, or in far too much complexity,” Warring says. “I’m interested in trying to help people understand more about these topics by making it fun and simple.”