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.

Springtails dance for World Soil Day

Today is #worldsoilday and Springtails are being celebrated as they are important to building healthy soil.

I first learned about these tiny arthropods when I saw them in my worm bin. They are not pests; they are part of the community in a healthy worm composting system and in soils around the world. Normally they are very difficult to see, but here they are magnified with a macro lens, so they become more visible. These superheros can walk on water and on the worm tea fertilizer they helped create. Don’t you wish you could experience what they do? This is what we are working on in our Belonging to Soil virtual reality project.

To see professional images of springtails, including a good variety of colors and species, check out this video featuring springtail photographer Andy Murray. Produced for World Soil Day by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations .

Amazing to learn that springtails colonized land 400 million years ago and worked alongside bacteria and fungi to create the first soils!

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 is jumping

Making progress on the avatar and the jumping interaction!

Luke Stephens has made a springtail avatar with a giant abdomen with a spring mechanism (furcula) that animates during jumping.

JT Thrash has coded the interaction of jumping, seen in the video. Next step is to test it out in a VR headset to find out how dizzy it makes us.