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  • January 22, 2015

Dr. Oeggerli’s Beautiful Little Monsters

Author
Todd James

Some people find Dr. Martin Oeggerli’s monsters a little frightening. I see beauty in them, perfectly shaped by evolution. I also see a hint of Charles Darwin and Albrecht Dürer: the scientist and the artist.

Mites don’t have a particularly nice reputation, but how well do we really know them?


VIDEO: This image of a soil mite magnified 556 times, took more than 59 hours to color.

Oeggerli wants to help us to see past our preconceptions and beyond the limits of our own eyes. With a scanning electron microscope (SEM), he explores the microcosmos—the tiny, unseen world that’s smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. There he finds exotic creatures with endless forms of evolutionary specialization. These creatures are perfectly adapted to their environment, by their environment.

Picture of a Frontipoda mite
Frontipoda is a predatory mite that lives in small ponds and feeds on larval midges.

When Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 he was not writing for an elite group of scientists. He was speaking to the rest of us. Darwin challenged the public to see and understand the natural world in a wholly new way.

Oeggerli, who studied zoology and has a Ph.D. in cancer research, seems to be following Darwin’s lead by exploring the biodiversity of the invisibly small world and inviting us along on his journey.

His work also reminds me of Dürer’s rhinoceros. This strange creature, unknown to Europe in 1515, captured the imagination of the entire continent partly because the artist’s famous etching made it visible. Whatever his work of artistic interpretation lacked in accuracy, it made up for with its sheer beauty, its strangeness, and its power to inspire the imagination.

Picture of a Schwiebea mite
Mites of the genus Schwiebea are found in many places, from soil and tree cavities to mushrooms, decaying wood, and swimming pools.
Picture of Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros, 1515
Albrecht Dürer’s Indian rhinoceros, depicted in the year 1515. Mary Evans Picture Library

Dürer was an artist drawn toward science, or at least animated by its principal ingredient: curiosity. Oeggerli is a man of science drawn toward artistic interpretation: Art multiplies science for him.

So how does he do it?

Oeggerli’s photographs can take several months to create. In fact, the images in this month’s National Geographic story took three years to complete.

Picture of a triptych of a mite being colored.
Oeggerli produces an extremely high-resolution, black-and-white topographic image of each mite, then painstakingly colors it based on realistic color data. Here, he captured an Eobrachychthonius sp., mite, which has been magnified 996 times.

Oeggerli works closely with research scientists to obtain specimens that are in good condition. Each sample has to be carefully dried using special solvents to maintain its natural shape and appearance. It is then coated with a thin layer of gold.

Several specimens are mounted on special tape before being put into the vacuum chamber of the SEM. Images are created in total darkness: A beam of electrons scans the surface area of the sample.

Pixel-by-pixel and line-by-line receptors detect electrons that are emitted from the sample during the analysis, creating an extremely high-resolution, black-and-white topographic image.

Picture of a box  mite.
Box Mite. Oeggerli applies realistic color to his images based on information obtained with an optical microscope.

Oeggerli carefully selects angles that capture the unique characteristics of each mite, then applies realistic color to the images based on information obtained with an optical microscope. He uses color variation to enhance the unique structural qualities of the specimen.

The results are lifelike, fantastical, and awe-inspiring all at once.

With his mite images, Oeggerli builds on the centuries-old traditions of Darwin and Dürer—blending science and art with modern technology, using his endless curiosity to inspire a new generation to explore the complexity and beauty of nature too small for us to see.

*****

Martin Oeggerli’s photos are featured in the story “Mighty Mites” in the February 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Todd James has been a photo editor for National Geographic magazine since 1996. He says, “Nature seems divine to me. Science helps me understand it better.”

There are 31 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Erick Parada
    July 14, 2015

    Sumamente maravilloso

  2. Martin
    July 13, 2015

    Could Pixar take the data files and animate them?

  3. Karl Wolkowycki
    May 22, 2015

    I really appreciate the work that is put into making the tiny insects alive to me as I would never have the privledge to see these insects this way if it wasn’t for you efforts and access to the equipment. Thank you very much

  4. susi white
    May 18, 2015

    Fabuloso trabajo !

  5. Frank
    March 19, 2015

    Great piece of work! I just wish you’d shown your subjects “live”, i.e. stuck to tape with maybe a close-up and reference item to demonstrate their small size.

  6. mike daniels
    March 6, 2015

    Amazing images. Such dedication. Can we expect a movie soon ? That would be awesome.

  7. Bernard Curtis
    February 14, 2015

    Wonderful photographs and very artistically coloured. During my working days (am now retired) I took many scanning electron micrographs of fine optical and semiconductor structures. I always included a scale, usually a micrometer bar, on the pictures and I think that it would have been very instructive to include one in your excellent article

  8. Tony Mayo
    February 13, 2015

    On page 78-79, is that greenish object at the center of the upper “face” of the soil mite a pollen grain?

  9. Tony Mayo
    February 13, 2015

    I admire and appreciate the images, but I believe the realism is overstated., Some of these features are similar in scale to the wavelengths of visible light; can they really have any color at all? I am skeptical that the colors used are at all realistic, especially since his images of microbes and pollen share the same color palette.

  10. Sheila Hyem-Hunter
    February 11, 2015

    What wonderful photography and what
    time-consuming painstaking work. So much appreciated by this reader.
    My first very own edition of National Geographic and this article and the photos made me so glad I took out the subscription.

  11. Aida
    February 5, 2015

    Wow- this article in the recent issue was really interesting. It’s so crazy- and it makes me more aware of all the little life crawling around us-and on us- that we can’t even see!

  12. arnold cohen
    February 4, 2015

    Beautiful images. Does anyone know how these images are colored? What software is used or are they printed and hand colored?

  13. Tom Hardenbergh
    February 3, 2015

    These photos allow me to see the diversity and adaptability of life Darwin wrote about.

  14. Renee Edwards
    February 1, 2015

    I loved this article and the pictures were astounding. Admittedly I began to itch all over, but as an amateur entomologist, and professional horticulturist, I knew that was psychological. Thank you however for not showing any of the many human species. As I was reading the article, a red spidermite was zooming around the arm of my chair, though huge by comparison to the mites of your article, I know it as a predator of its smaller plant damaging kin, so carefully replaced him on a plant to continue happily hunting. Thanks again for a great story of the wonderful and dangerous of our microscopic world.

  15. J.Wright
    January 29, 2015

    awsome! frightening-and the’re all over me!

  16. Philip Brockman
    January 28, 2015

    @ Lewis Parker: When you shower you rid the body of a third of the scales we’ll pass daily. The rest rubs off in our clothing and the linen in our beds. Vacuum regularly (deep cleaning once a month to get new hatchlings and fresh eggs. There’s also a ‘treatment’ you can apply to your furnishings every year to kill and rid their growth.

  17. Philip Brockman
    January 28, 2015

    Not beautiful to those who suffer from allergies. The mites we live with are 3 microns @ birth, then gorge on our dead skin scales until they’re aprox 10 microns. They poop 8 times a day, and its the feces which triggers most reactions. Oh, and they lay eggs which hatch every 21 days. Stay clean, stay healthy.

  18. Marco Mtz
    January 28, 2015

    Great job!

  19. Kimberley Collier
    January 27, 2015

    I always tell my kids….
    just because you can’t see it,
    doesn’t mean it’s not there.
    Kids we live in a microbial world.

  20. Lu Weaver
    January 26, 2015

    So where is the video you promised in the article :Your Face Mating Ground for Mites?

  21. Gokberk Howard
    January 26, 2015

    Awesome!

  22. Paul Yates
    January 26, 2015

    Just fantastic, extraordinary work….

  23. Gottfried Brieger
    January 25, 2015

    I am astounded by Dr. Oeggerli’s creations. I would never have expected that nature could construct such a detailed creature in such a tiny format! I would love to see some other categories of microorganisms presented in a similar manner if possible. Many Thanks!

  24. Quinten
    January 25, 2015

    Brilliant work..

  25. Lewis Parker
    January 25, 2015

    Wonderful, beautiful, but how do I get them off of my skin ??

  26. Art Schultz
    January 25, 2015

    I calculated a true scale bar in microns for each image based on the magnificatios given…this gives a better feel for the size of these amazing creatures!

  27. Brendon
    January 25, 2015

    Beautiful images, just amazing.

  28. Dariusz
    January 24, 2015

    Great, hard work, incredible effect.

  29. Michele Lugnan
    January 24, 2015

    Extraordinary ! Compliments !

  30. Nick Chu
    January 24, 2015

    Is so crazy!

  31. Shruthi V
    January 23, 2015

    Spectacular beauties!! 🙂

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