DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — A wild microbe in the soil is eating grass, oblivious to other microbes quietly following behind it. When a predator waits for the right moment to pounce on its prey, it can be over in the blink of an eye.
While most of us are used to seeing this scene in nature documentaries, photographer Andy Murray saw the dramatic scene unfold before him from the backyard of his home in Somerset, England.
Murray sits on his knees, peering through a magnifying glass, while a stray 6-millimeter scorpion kills a tail-jumper half his size.
For Murray, these microscopic soil animals are as fascinating as the lions and zebras you might find on safari in Africa, but they’re much easier to reach if you know where to look.
“She lives in this little world; it’s like our world, but on a smaller scale,” Murray told CNN.
He added: “If you look at it long enough, you’ll see the same phenomena, you’ll see predators and stalkers, you’ll see creatures that feed on plants, and you’ll see strange and funny interactions.”
Even with a magnifying glass there is a good chance of seeing some type of life in the soil.
According to a recent study published in the scientific journal PNAS, more than half of all land species live in soil, which is one of the richest habitats on Earth.
Despite the richness of soil life, the creatures that live beneath our feet are relatively unknown.
Murray seeks to change that, and hopes that careful photography can uncover the quirks and characteristics of these unusual animals and demonstrate their conservation.
He points out that photographing a never-before-photographed world is so exciting, his passion for exploration is similar to the passion that drives people to climb Mount Everest or adventure in the Arctic, but on a smaller scale.
Exploring the unknown
Murray, 56, recalls how his interest in microscopes dates back to his childhood, but over the years technological limitations prevented him from sharing what he was seeing. A decade ago, when macro photography became possible with a digital camera, Murray devoted his time and effort to the craft, occupying his time with his jobs as a musician, chef and now freelance editor.
Although he has no scientific background, Murray says he has “the tools and the passion” and has spent more than 10,000 hours working in fields in Europe and Australia and New Zealand.
During this time, he discovered 30 new species, including one in his garden pond. His photographs have been used in scientific reports, including a recent PNAS study, and he documents his findings on his website, The Chaos of Delight.
Some soil microorganisms are likely to become extinct before they are even identified, as their habitats are increasingly degraded by intensive agriculture and deforestation. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, one-third of the Earth’s soil has already been eroded, and the erosion rate will reach 90% by 2050.
Losing these species would have huge ripple effects, explains Marc Anthony of the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research and co-author of the PNAS report.
These tiny creatures play a huge role on Earth, being decomposers and an important food source for animals at the top of the food chain.
The report found that 59% of Earth’s species, from microbes to mammals, can be found in soil.
Anthony believes that elucidating the sheer scale of soil life will help protect it.
The challenge is to care for soil creatures as much as people care for elephants, penguins, or other beautiful, highly visible animals.
This is where photography comes in for Murray, as capturing the colors, textures and faces of these strange creatures makes them more understandable.
Murray is interested in springtails, common worms and woodlice.
These tiny creatures are found all over the world and are capable of surviving extreme temperatures, but they are often considered pests and are controlled by pesticides because they can damage crops.
Murray believes that this perception could change if people could look at them up close and see their colors and nuances.
By observing these organisms interact in their natural habitat, Murray is helping to enrich the field of science.
Murray must be one of the few professional photographers in the world to turn his lens to soil creatures. There is so much to discover, and these strange alien-like creatures are right at our feet.
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