Ask your child what a tyrannosaurus is, or a velociraptor, and you’ll probably get an intelligible answer. Movies have made dinosaurs familiar to millions. But ask them what a rotifer is, or a tardigrade, and you’ll get a blank stare.
Yet 50 years ago, many boys and girls might have enlightened you, says Peter Marren, one of our leading naturalists. For tardigrades and rotifers are microscopic animals found in freshwater bodies, such as ponds, and were the delight of children with microscopes – now, says Mr Marren, virtually a vanished species.
Not just children, either. It’s as if, he says, a whole, major part of the natural world has dropped out of our consciousness – microscopic life, the kingdom of the tiny. That’s something he’s an authority on, because two years ago he published Bugs Britannica, a fascinating encyclopaedia of Britain’s invertebrates, the creatures without backbones, which are overwhelmingly insects, but also the very tiny things, such as daphnia or water fleas.
Nobody looks at them now, he laments. “Hardly anybody uses a microscope any more. They’re just for specialist activities now, and there aren’t many specialists, either. But half of biodiversity, you need a microscope to see! The teeming hordes of these things, which are everywhere. They’re totally neglected now. Amateur naturalists tend not to bother with them. The sense of wonder you can get through seeing a world you can’t otherwise see – that sort of curiosity seems to have vanished.”