Embiggening Things

Micropsectra atrofasciata - with close up of the male's 'claspers' - a diagnostic feature.
If you wish to observe the world of the very small you have two main options.

a) Invent a machine that shrinks your body down to the scale of the object in question.
b) Buy a microscope.

I weighed up the problems inherent in option a), such as defying the laws of physics and getting trodden on...versus clicking a button on Amazon.  Call me feckless if you like, but I decided to eschew the, potentially Nobel Prize winning first option, and opted to go down button clicking avenue.

My decision has proved to be perfectly cromulent and I've been having fun embiggening1 things.

Apropos microscopy …

…I’ve switched the moth trap on during a couple of recent mild nights. On Monday I had the first moth of the year – the optimistically named Spring Usher. 

A jack-in-a-box style escape of flies, midges and gnats often accompanies the trap opening. As there were few moths to divert the attention I thought I’d dip into dipterology. The midget gem of a midge, pictured above  proved interesting.

A lot of insects require microscopy  to get a species level identification.  The genitalia are often diagnostic features – similar species are prevented from interbreeding by a kind of ‘lock and key’ mechanism.

So it proved with this one.  I showed the images above to a kindly expert in Berlin2 who confirmed it as Micropsectra atrofaciata – which appears to be a new species for Lancashire.

Pleurococcus on the garden fence - at increasing levels of magnification

I had been interested to know the identity of the bright green patches commonly seen on fences and tree trunks. Microscopy revealed this to be the algae Pleurococcus.  

According to Wikipedia: "purported to be the most abundant organism on the planet at ten trillion trillion"3.

It’s likely that some marine micro-organisms outnumber Pleurococcus, but 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 represents an impressive number of anything, be it micro-organisms or Facebook friends.

The grey/green crumbly patches seen on bark are also examples of this algae in a ‘lichenised’ association with fungi.
Lichenised Pleurococcus aka Lepraria

Recent Patch Sightings
25/1 - Pipistrelle flying midday
25/1 - Spring Usher (moth)
26/1 - Ermine (all white stoat)
27/1 - Micropsectra atrofasciata (midge)
28/1 - 12 Siskins, Woodcock, Willow tit, Barn owl

Leafy Liverworts - Diplophyllum albicans, Cephalozia bicuspidata, Lepidozia reptans, 

Unregarded patches of 'mossy stuff', as pictured above, are everywhere. On closer inspection with a hand lens or microscope they often turn it to be leafy liverworts (as opposed to the more familiar thallose liverworts). This was a group I was barely aware of before I started looking at the bryophytes, even though almost a quarter of my field guide to mosses and liverworts is taken up with these tiny plants...

...as every schoolboy knows the more you look the more you see.

Spring usher


There is of course an option c) -  a 'Drink  Me'- style shrinking potion as dreamt up by Lewis Carroll. However there is in fact a condition called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome .

I had this as a child, a very bizarre and hard to describe condition which I found quite scary.  The body and/or observed objects seem the wrong size.  Much too small, then much too big, and sometimes both simultaneously. I would normally experience it while in bed whilst falling asleep.

Although poorly understood it is thought that signals sent from the brain to the eyes are disturbed, resulting in size perception being altered.

It has been speculated that Lewis Carrol, a migraine sufferer with similar symptoms,  had used his own  experiences as a source of inspiration for  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

"A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man" is a line from the Simpsons
The etymology of embiggen.  
The etymology of cromulent.

Many thanks to Viktor Baranov for Chironomid identification.

However, what constitutes an individual in the case of something like Pleurococcus? Get this


  1. I thought it was all going to go a bit ‘Alice in Wonderland’ there for a moment. ;) Great post and information as always Phil. Interesting to see that you spotted a Pipistrelle – I wonder if something had disturbed it, or if it was thrown by the weird weather and mild temperatures. I’ve seen a couple of honey bees this month and they also should really be safely tucked away for a fair while yet!

  2. Of course...thats option c), A 'Drink Me' style potion. Incidentally did you know that's there is thing as Alice in Wonderland syndrome..no really, I had it as a child. Very strange indeed your body simultaneously feels too big and too small. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_in_Wonderland_syndrome

    Im going to ammend the post to mention it - it's the kind of odd and obscure connection between things that I like.

    1. Thanks for the link Phil, that's really interesting. I think I may have heard of the syndrome (it sounds vaguely familiar), but not known what it entailed - that must have been really strange, and I'd imagine potentially quite scary too! (I'm all for perception remaining reliable and consistent!)

  3. I think bat was on the wing in response to the mild weather..lots of unseasonable things happening

    1. Long Eared Bats were flying and feeding well here the last week of December. Not noticed them since as although still getting night temps of around 10c in January it was generally wet and windy. Judy.


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