Exploring the magical, microscopic world of moss

By Andy Chandler-Grevatt posted 07-03-2024 15:52


I see moss differently to most people. Ever since learning that each plump green cushion of moss is its own island, with its own ecosystem, and its own weird and wonderful microscopic inhabitants, I’ve been hooked. What started as a hobby has become a passion. As well as being a Senior Lecturer in Science Education at University of Brighton, I'm the founder of Moss Safari and I invite children and adults to join me on my moss safari to look for the ‘big five’.  Yes, they are the microscopic equivalent to the ‘big five’ you see on safari in east Africa.

As a teacher educator, it was a logical step to introduce moss safaris to school children. Under the microscope, the moss ecosystem comes to life in an accessible way. And the idea of the ‘big five’ is something children find exciting and engaging.

So, what are the ‘big five’? These are animals that are less than one millimetre long. There are the lumbering moss mites who, although look menacing, usually only eat fungi and shelter in moss. The frenetic nematode worms have sticky tails to latch to a moss stem and hold secrets to our understanding of ageing. The unique rotifers look like worms, but when they feed, they unfurl ‘wheel organs’ that filter food from the water. The tardigrade is a cute looking ‘water bear’ that is the most resilient animal on earth, even able to survive in space. Finally, the gastrotrich is an enigmatic flat hairy worm that glides and twists gracefully between the moss stalks.

I received an exciting invitation to lead a moss safari in search of tardigrades, as part of an invertebrate-themed BBC Teach Live Lesson for British Science Week 2024. This led to me taking my microscopes, a sample of moss and my enthusiasm to be recorded in a bug park in Norwich. It was a very new experience for me, and I think the tardigrades were better than me on screen. However, I did get to meet and work with Dr Jess French, the zoologist and author. The lesson will be available to watch from Monday 11 March on the BBC Teach website and on CBBC.

I hope it will help to raise awareness that a moss safari is something primary teachers can do with their children. It is very simple to do, you just need a piece of moss and a microscope which you can borrow free of charge from the Royal Microscopical Society. In the search for the distinctive ‘big five’ usually invisible invertebrates, you can use resources to tell tales of their fascinating life cycles, adaptations for survival in the extreme moss environment and their place in the food chain. However, there are deeper, more connected stories that relate to the world and our lives including pollution, climate change and opportunities to improve medicine and even space travel.

In addition to all that, a moss safari shows children that the science isn’t done yet. There is space for citizen scientists and actual scientists, to become specialists in specific organisms. Children encounter many organisms beyond the ‘big five’, some may be undiscovered species. It is important for teachers to say, ‘I don’t know’ and let children know that the science isn’t finished yet. There is a need for scientists in the future. We need experts on the microscopic.

There are so many opportunities for learning through a safari. Start off with the BBC Teach Live Lesson and then create your own moss safari. Welcome to the microscopic world of moss.

The British Science Week 2024 Live Lesson will air on CBBC on Monday 11 March at 11am. More information here

Did you enjoy this blog? If so, please hit 'like' at the top!