A lot of my time at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve has been spent in the plankton lab that is offered to school groups as part of their field trip. It is a really neat lab because it allows students to interact with microscopes, something that some students might not have a chance to do within their regular school year curriculum.
The key to a good lab is collecting a good sample from the slough. This usually requires a pair of rubber boots to get into the water and collect some big chunks of bryozoans, which are a plant-like colonial animals that the benthic invertebrates like to hang from.
Some of the most commons benthic invertebrates we see in the lab are Caprellids, also called skeleton shrimp. When most students first see them under the microscopes they are a little spooked because of their alien-like appearance. Most people think they look like mantises of some sort. Another critter we often see are sea spiders from the class Pycnogonida. Students usually ask if they’re actual spiders and they are not, they just look like land spiders. We also get brittle stars and small sea jellies.
The best part about the lab is seeing how excited the students are looking at their samples. Especially after they’ve had some initial trouble focusing the microscope but then eventually get it right and are able to see the critters clearly and sharply.
Helping in the labs was always a fun activity. And it was also a reminder about how we are surrounded by micro and macroscopic life, and that sometimes it’s important to appreciate it and observe it sometimes.