Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Water Flea
by T.R.Hart

     The drama was beginning to unfold when I was interrupted by Ms. Jones, the cleaning woman:

     "Professor! It sure do smell here! Lemme' open these windas and get rid of  that funk!"

     I was unnerved and a little irritated by her intrusion, but I must admit that she was correct. It was uncommonly warm for April. The samples of creek water left opened in the laboratory emitted noxious fumes of intestinal waste, or to put it bluntly… poop.
I politely asked her to leave, which annoyed her a little, but she shrugged it off and said, "don't matter to me. You gotta live with it!" I found it easier to live with the smell than to deal with her interfering with my work.
     I resumed my observations of the water sample under the microscope, which I had inadvertently disrupted when Ms. Jones had made her unannounced visit.
   I spotted a Hydra, a tiny predatory creature was tumbling head over heels. The head, (actually it has no head) was surrounded by a mass of tentacles.  The Hydra is a fascinating creature to observe with a microscope. It is tubular in appearance, and with as many as a dozen tentacles surrounding a mouth situated at the top of the organism. These tentacles are armed with poisonous darts called nematocysts. It contains a neurotoxin used to immobilize its prey, some, almost twice the size of the Hydra itself!
   Another creature, a small crustacean of the Cladocera order known as Daphnia, commonly known to biologists as a water flea, was navigating the water within the perimeter of view. The Hydra was not in freefall as I had supposed, but rather, was in pursuit of the water flea, one of its chief sources of food.
     Whether the water flea entered the space of the Hydra or whether it had been actively ambushed, I cannot remember, but, I a second water flea became ensnared while the Hydra was in the process of devouring the former.  
   But…this time… it was different! The second water flea made no attempt to escape, but rather, it began to attack its pursuer. The water flea seemed impervious to the toxins in the nematocysts. The tentacles of the Hydra began to disappear into the mandibles of this strange-looking creature. The consumer became the "consumed" within minutes of the initial contact.
     I realize that to the layman this series of events would be deemed inconsequential, but my fascination with this phenomenon drove me to the point of obsession. This Daphnia increased twofold in size within a few hours. It had begun asexual reproduction, not uncommon with the species, but mutated presenting enlarged mandibles and clawed appendages. "How could this mutation have occurred?" I thought to myself. "Could there have been something within the water's composition that caused it to change?" Let me begin with the reason for obtaining these water samples.
     I was contacted by our local environmental watchdog group some weeks ago. They suspected that one of the local creek had become polluted due to the presence of dead fish and other aquatic life found below a drainage tunnel. I ascertained that raw sewage had been introduced into the water system as a result of a broken pipe, yet I was still unsure of the cause of the changes taking place among the local fauna (animal species)within the ecosystem.
     I began taking water and some ooze samples from the creek's bottom, above the source, at the source of the effluent, and below the source. Those samples taken above the source were quite normal. The site clearly showed the presence of intestinal waste, or poop, while the water samples taken below manifested some strange abnormalities in the animals taken from the ooze.
   I took notice of the change in appearance of the small fish that were dredged along with the soil. Their eyes appeared to be greatly enlarged, no doubt, from the presence of nitrates in the water. The crayfish that I had observed were covered in a green-gray slime so thick that they could barely move their pincers.              
   When I closely observed scrapings from their bodies, I found it to be devoid of blue-green algae, but teeming with bacteria, and protozoa like the Hydra and the Daphnia. The primary source of the food chain, the blue-green algae had disappeared.
    It was during this investigation that I had become obsessed with watching and taking notes of the changes within the solitary Daphnia, or Water Flea, that I had mentioned before.   
   All other animals were quite normal, but it was the Water Flea that I named "Adam" that was truly different from the rest.
     Perhaps it was the rapid growth of "Adam", whom I regarded as the first of his kind, which had attracted my attention. Normal Water Fleas are between 1 to 5 millimeters in length. The Hydra at 15 millimeters was much larger than its prey. "Adam" was larger than the rest of his species measuring at least 10 millimeters. Of course, he would still be an easy meal for the Hydra which could consume a much larger prey, but it was the ferocity of his attack on a larger and more deadly species that astounded me.
     On the second day of my observations I took notes on the samples which I would put into my report, but I must confess, I spent the entire day watching this strange little creature.
   Adam was in the process of consuming his peers when I noticed that he began to produce a smaller clone of himself. Daphnia are able to produce asexually when they find the condition favorable by a process known as "Parthenogenesis". During this process, which is too lengthy to explain, an unfertilized egg develops into an individual.
     I called that little Water Flea "Eve" as it appeared to be taken from Adam's rib. There was no attempt by Adam to molest Eve, but they worked in tandem together obliterating all signs of life within the drop of water. Perhaps I had been too long at my observing, but I sensed that Adam's disproportionate huge eye seemed to be regarding me in a most malicious manner, as if it knew it was being observed.
     My obsession with noting changes within the water fleas grew each day. Adam was turned a shade of red and I no longer required staining my samples. The nature of the species changed along with their newly acquired mutated appendages. Normal Daphnia consume prey smaller than themselves but these "children" of Adam did not. They doubled in size each day … an alarming rate! By the third day they had grown so large that I needed to observe them in a small dish.
     These little "red devils", as I called them, began to proliferate in the sample jars placed on a shelf close to my microscope. One day while observing them, I began unscrewing the lid to the jar when I received a vicious bite. It unsettled me for a second or two and when I looked at my finger I saw several of these little monsters trying to dig their way into me.
     I quickly crushed the little devils and placed them under the scope and observed the change in the mandibles which had become larger than any I had ever seen. I then realized that the mutation had been successfully passed onto "Adam's" progeny.
    But… where was Adam? I examined each sample and found schools of red devils swimming in and out of algae that had accumulated and grown while exposed to the sunny window. He must be in one of the jars!
     Then, I spotted him. Adam had grown to a length of about two and a half inches. Eve, who remained by his side was at least an inch long. Within a week they had grown to an incredible size! How big would they be in a month, or a year? Would they stop growing at a certain point? I could only guess.
     Adam was staring at me with his huge cycloptic eye. He followed my finger as I dragged it around the jar's surface. Then at one point all the little red devils seemed to leap at my finger. I surely would have received a bite if not for the glass barrier protecting me.
     I was hit with the shocking realization that these water fleas could reproduce sexually and asexually. What kind of damage could they do if they were released into the water system?  
     I immediately called Dr.Sato, the department head of the marine biology department. I had explained my concerns and my wish to meet with him. He was excited about the prospect of observing this new species of water fleas and asked me to bring a sample as soon as I could. It was late that evening. I assured him that I would bring Adam and Eve for studying in the morning. I was exhausted and went to bed.
     I dressed quickly the next morning, kissed my wife and flew out the front door sipping my coffee and holding Adam, Eve, and some of their "minions" in a large jelly jar. These little red devils pressed against the glass where my hand held the jar. I could sense Adam's malevolent eye following my every movement.
     Dr. Sato was just opening the door to his office when I shouted a "Hullo" to him. I raised the jar as if it was a trophy. I guess I looked silly, because he let out a loud laugh.
     We studied Adam and Eve and decided to dissect him. All attempts to capture the elusive creature were futile. The water fleas all circled around him as if in a protective cocoon. Eve was not so lucky. She was left alone and was easily captured.
     Eve had grown a half of an inch overnight. Her mandibles had grown quite large and her pincers looked like a lobster's claw. The eye was decidedly smaller than it had been in relation to her body, unlike her progenitor.
     Dr. Sato pointed out something to me that I was unaware of. Throughout the week the water fleas were shedding their shells which he found deposited on the bottom of the jar. They were molting much like other crustaceans but at an incredible rate. He asked me if there were any more like Adam.
     I had explained to him that I found no others like Adam in my sample jars. As the water fleas multiplied I placed them in other jars so that they would have a larger food supply. The "food" was quickly consumed.
     Dr. Sato began to explain the danger in allowing these creatures to continue to reproduce. He said that I must destroy all of the animals in the other jars. They could easily become an invasive species with a capacity to grow to a large size, and… at a rapid rate. If released into the water system, these mutated water fleas had the potential to be hazardous not only for the local ecosystem, but to mankind as well. I assured him that I would take care of it immediately. I noticed Adam's eye following us from the jar and it made me feel like a murderer.
     I had arrived home later that afternoon feeling guilty about what I must do. I was relieved to see Ms. Jones leaving my driveway in her station wagon loaded with cleaning supplies. I gave her a little wave and proceeded to the house.
     My latest obsession with studying these creatures led me to personify them. I actually began to believe that Adam was able to think. He had the potential to lead his little army of water fleas. My feeling of guilt at destroying the water fleas left me when I considered the potential threat. In fact, I felt good knowing that I had become a savior to mankind by eliminating this threat.
   My exuberance at making my decision to exterminate these little monsters quickly turned to anxiety and dread when I found the note on my desk which read:
     I could take the stink in yo' lab no more. I flushed all the stuff in those jars of yours down the toilet. They all clean now!


The End

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