How small are mites: the Full Stop Test

8 Oribatid mites scaled to a 12 pt Times Roman period (0.5 mm dia.)

Recently The BugGeek posed an interesting challenge: “Can you talk to 10-year-olds about science?” I found this especially interesting because, as an acarologist, I find it difficult to explain the study of non-pest mites to people of any age or educational level. Usually when asked my occupation, I just say ‘I’m a scientist’ or, if among university types, ‘a biologist’ or ‘I work on bugs’. Other than with voluble taxi drivers, this usually proves satisfactory. Sometimes (usually under the influence of alcohol) I do try to explain to strangers the excitement I feel about the diversity of intricate morphologies and amazing behaviours exhibited by mites. But in my experience, if you have a party that has been going on for too long, then I am just the person you need to send even the most couch-bound inebriate scratchingly on their way.

A few years ago, though, I was asked to try and explain mites to 2nd Graders. I decided that the critical information was size – if I could explain how small mites were to an 8 year old, then I’d have a chance. I played around with a how many mites would your foot-print cover (a number too large even for a government deficit) and a penny, but even a penny can hold about 7000 of the smallest mite in the picture above and even in a large poster the mites are too small to see. I finally settle on a Times Roman 12 pt period, conveniently 0.5 mm in diameter. Times Roman and similar serif fonts are those most commonly used in publications (the little feet make a sort of dotted line for the eye to follow while reading) and every sentence ends in a full stop. What could go wrong?

Well, the good news is the 2nd Graders liked the pictures of the mites. The bad news is that ‘period’ does not compute in the 8-year-old mind. We tried inverting the background so that the period was black and the background white (which involved several hours of cleaning up black speckles), but ‘what’s a period?’ proved too great a hurdle. Oh well, it still makes a nice poster.



7 Responses to “How small are mites: the Full Stop Test”

  1. Dac Crossley Says:

    What a nice image – mites against a 12 point dot. So used to seeing them at 12X or more, you forget how small they really are.

    Okay to use that image here in the Georgia Museum of Natural History?

  2. The Weekly Flypaper » Biodiversity in Focus Blog Says:

    […] Pop quiz hot shot: How many mites can you fit on a size 12, Times Roman typed period? Macromite has the answer with an awesome poster (and the answer might surprise you). […]

  3. Jeffrey Says:

    I always equate their size to fine grains of sand. Of course in our “micro world” that’s a VERY rough generalization considering range in grain and mite size, but it does put them in a clear size category for the general public (including kids).
    Just one word of advise to all acarologists that attempt public outreach activities: make sure that when you start wooing them with possible numbers (densities) of mites found in their back yard, they don’t mistakenly hear “mice” instead of “mites”. I had a very concerned parent one day while talking to a class of 5th graders.

  4. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    Gorgeous poster that. You really go gorgeous work.

  5. sglover Says:

    Here’s a size-related question: What’s the size of a mite nervous system? What’s the neuron count? I imagine there’s a huge range of sizes — a couple, maybe three orders of magnitude?

  6. Where are all the Arachnologists? (and why you should care) « Arthropod Ecology Says:

    […] Oribatid mites scaled to a 12 pt Times Roman period (0.5 mm dia.). Photo by D. Walter, reproduced here, with permission. You should visit his […]

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