An Ancient Symbiosis

There is a symbiotic relationship between springtails and a bacteria known as streptomyces, which is fascinating and scientifically documented. It is related to that lovely scent of earth after it rains, known as petrichor. When the bacteria are dying, they create spores to populate the next generation and they need springtails to spread the spores so they emit the scent to attract springtails. Springtails come for the feast of dying bacteria and leave with spores in their belly and on their skins, spreading them around to new locations. This relationship seems similar to those formed by plants and pollinators, but it is far more ancient. We just did not discover it earlier because it is happening mostly underground, the bacteria are invisible, and springtails are so tiny. More info on this 500 MILLION year old relationship here.

We are not making up these wild stories, just trying to simulate and experience them in our VR experience, Belonging to Soil. In it, you are a springtail, doing your important work of contributing to the soil ecosystem. Eating streptomyces bacteria and spreading their spores is one of the things you will get to do in our VR project. This is a walk through of the chamber of bacteria that are sporulating.

Mayen McClain has been working on the 3D environments, The programming for the interactions are being created by JT Thrash, Andrew Sanchez, and Shadrick Addy. Will Yuan and Megan Wright are working on characters and animation. Amy Youngs is doing the story and project management. We will soon be adding the custom music and sound effects made by Josh Rodenberg.

Eating Waterbears

Though they are invisible to our human eye, waterbears, (tardigrades) are plentiful in wet zones in and around soil. They eat moss and are sometimes called “moss piglets”. I read in Biology of the Springtails, that some varieties of springtails eat them, so this activity is part of the virtual reality experience for you, as a springtail. You can only eat them when they emerge above the water, and you need to get your mouth near them. Josh Rodenberg, the sound artist who is making the music, is currently working on making a satisfying popping sound for eating waterbears.

The pink blobs are springtail excrement, (AKA poop), which happens when you squat and squeeze your fists, but only after you have eaten. In the video, pooping is happening at the same time as eating waterbears, since the action is similar. Defining these as different is something we are still working on at the coding level.

Like most poop, springtail poop is food for other things – microorganisms and plants – so this is one of the superpowers of springtails that keeps the ecosystem healthy. More on this in a future post.

* Hopkin, Stephen P. Biology of the Springtails: (Insecta: Collembola). United Kingdom: OUP Oxford, 1997.

Riding on a flying ant

How did springtails get to populate every continent in the world? These wildly successful, abundant arthropods have no wings, they are too tiny to hop or crawl over long distances, and they dry out easily. So, they hitchhiked on flying insects. No humans have witnessed this event, but it has been discovered in the fossil record. Springtails are found entombed in amber, with their antennae clinging to the bodies of flying insects like termites and ants.

Distribution of Electrosminthuridia helibionta springtails on termite and ant hosts within 16-million-year-old Dominican amber: (A) amber specimen; (B) illustration showing the location of springtails on social insects. Arrow – inflow of the tree resin before consolidation. Scale bar – 0.5 cm. Image credit: N. Robin & P. Barden.

This scientific discovery inspired the first part of the story of “Belonging to Soil”. In VR, the participant rides on the back of a flying ant, experiencing what it might be like to be a springtail, traveling to new lands.

Luke Stephens, our character designer and animator, created the flying ant and springtail. Mayen McClain created this scene and the ant’s flightpath, while JT Thrash has programmed the behaviors, Josh Rodenberg designed the sound, and Shadrick Addy is helping us navigate the challenges of Unity and VR.  We are still working out how to jump without falling through the simulated world… if you watch the video to the end you’ll see this!

Underground environment

Mayen McClain has been working on the underground scene; including plant roots, soil, minerals, bacteria, and mycelia. To indicate that this scene is close to the top of the soil, there are porous holes that let light in through the top of the soil chamber. These photos are taken from inside the Oculus VR headset.

This is the view from outside of the world, the black lines at the top are the springtail antennae.

Video captured from inside VR. Shows the animated root growing, plus moving around in the chamber, over rocks, streptomyces bacteria (the blue parts), and among the roots. The tunnels that are blocked off now, will eventually lead to additional scenes and environments.

Springtail avatar

Luke Stephens modeled the springtail body in the 3D software Blender.

The virtual skeleton that activates the movements of the avatar is placed inside the springtail model. The Humanoid Controller for VR had to be adjusted to fit into the springtail body, but the extra set of legs really caused the whole body to malfunction. So Luke had to redesign the character.   The new character also has hands, which is not realistic to springtail insects, but since it is a part of the Humanoid Controller they were included.

Though compromises had to be made to get the avatar to work in VR, this is expected. The very idea that humans can understand what it is like to operate the body of another is fraught with challenges. There are always approximations and best guesses.

Inhabiting a springtail

We want to be able to experience an approximation of what it is like to be a springtail, so we are experimenting with ways to use VR to become one. In virtual reality, avatars are designed to operate human shaped bodies, so we are working to “mis-use” the tools or extend it so it can get us beyond the human.

human rig inside springtail model

Luke Stephens is developing a springtail body with a human “skeleton” (animation rig). Then JT Thrash and Shadrick Addy are mapping this rig to the Humanoid Controller SDK (Software Development Kit) in Unity.

Springtail avatar modeled in Blender

The challenges we are encountering are many, including the need to adjust to the differences between the springtail body and the human body. For instance, we lack the antennae, a jumping apparatus (furcula), and extra legs. How do we control all of those extra appendages? Also, should we humans crawl on our hands and feet to conform to the springtail stance? We decided to have the springtail avatar take a human stance, but still include the antennae, furcula, and extra arms/legs.

Shadrick preparing to test the springtail body in VR

We will experiment with ways to control these appendages with our body gestures. There was one appendage we did not include on the body, the collophore; a two-part tube that inflates from their abdomen for cleaning and for sticking to surfaces when landing. It looks very challenging to operate a springtail body. Watch the collophore in action in the video below, from the fabulous show Life in the Undergrowth, a BBC series with David Attenborough.