Last week I was reading one of Alex Wild’s post at Photo Synthesis about Anthropomorphism in Science Photography and trying to think how to make one of my mite images less alien and more appealing. The best I could do was polish up this Queensland rainforest uropodid mite that always looked to me like a hat that fell off the head of some elf scampering through.
The question of anthropomorphism in science is an important one, but complex. When I first started colouring my SEMs 20-odd years ago, I asked one of my graduate students (who was also a good artist) what he thought. He was aghast and thought me very unscientific. For him, the grayscale SEM was the real representation of the animal and trying to colour it as it had been in life tantamount to massaging the data. This reminded me of a tradition in some acarological line drawings where they would draw what they saw – if the mite had a big crack up the middle, so did the drawing.
I see things differently. Mites do show colour and are not black and white. Also, any SEM is a highly abstract image composed from the backscatter from the electron beam – a meld of information from whatever depths the electrons penetrate (as I understand it, usually on a micron or so). Any and all pictures are abstracted from reality to one degree or another. If your purpose is to use an illustration to demonstrate a scientific point, then your image can be scientific (assuming you aren’t fabricating the point). If to make a political statement, then it is politics, and so on. In this case, I think whimsy got the better of me.
In the Northern Hemisphere, uropodid mites (Mesostigmata: Uropodoidea) are found primarily in discrete habitats such as compost, treeholes, bark beetle galleries, and ant nests. They usually disperse as deutonymphs attached to insects by an anal pedicel (and look much like tiny lollipops). In the Southern Hemisphere, uropodids occupy patchy habitats, but they also are one of the dominant members of the forest litter community.