pond scum ART – Ever seen algae up close?

TOPIA meets Instagram hit Couch Microscopy

Couch Microscopy unlocks a huge unseen world by turning the beautiful worlds of teeny hardcore things like algae into art – to help us better understand life on Earth. Plankton has never looked so good

When thinking about the wonders of the natural world, Julia Van Etten is redirecting our gaze downwards to the beautiful world of algae.

You don’t have to be a scientist – or go to the bottom of the ocean or to a rainforest – to see weird and wonderful organisms. Everyone can take some dirt or water from any local pond or puddle (the slimier and stinkier, the better), buy a low cost microscope, and study “charismatic microbes” from the comfort of their couch.

Five years ago, Julia Van Etten was looking for a hobby to fill a year break in her studies to recover from late-stage Lyme disease. She bought a relatively inexpensive microscope, and started to collect water samples and take photos of what most people would consider scum. She then posted the breathtaking images on Instagram – on an account she called Couch Microscopy – to help more people appreciate biodiversity.

Julia Van Etten aka Couch Microscopy

And that she did. Today over 32,000 followers are inspired by her images of algae, plankton, insect larvae, and microorganisms that the PhD student of ecology and evolution at Rutgers University collects from New Jersey bodies of water.

This just might be the coolest way of putting our pointillist landscape of tiny living beings into perspective.

We asked Julia to tell us about her 7 favourite images and then asked her a few Quick Q

Filamentous cyanobacteria

“I love how these Cyanobacteria cells look like an abstract painting. Thank you Cyanos for giving us oxygen!”

Filamentous cyanobacteria. Anabaena sp. 400x magnification. Brightfield.

Brown algae

“I picked this piece of seaweed up on the beach at the Jersey Shore and sliced it up with a scalpel to get a flat piece onto my slide. It’s very thick and gooey.”

Brown algae (bladderwrack), Fucus vesiculosus. 200x magnification. Brightfield

Tiny snail shells 

“I don’t know what snail these are from but they were stuck to a piece of seagrass and just looked like tiny white dots, almost invisible to the naked eye. I love snails and thought they photographed so beautifully when magnified.”

Tiny snail shells. 40x magnification. Darkfield.

Marine diatom

“This was the first intact marine centric diatom (photosynthesising algae) I ever found. It was from a water sample I collected along a brackish water canal while getting lunch on a family vacation to North Carolina.”

Marine diatom. Coscinodiscus sp. 1000x magnification. Brightfield.

Lionfish scale

“I love photographing fish scales. They look kind of like human fingerprints. Lionfish are invasive and really damaging to ecosystems in the tropical waters of the western Atlantic.”

Lionfish scale. 40x magnification. Darkfield.

Green algae

“Hydrodictyon is cool to find in freshwater streams and ponds. It is a filamentous green alga that forms hollow tube structures of hexagonal configurations of cells. These “water nets” can become so dense and populous that they block waterways! I collected this sample from a stream on the side of the road in my town.”

Green algae. Hydrodictyon sp. (“water net”). 100x magnification. Brightfield.

Colony of peritrich ciliates

“These ciliates form stalks from individual cells that allow a whole colony of cells to move together and react (expand and contract) in the presence of stimuli. Colonial protists are modern day examples of the behaviour that preceded the evolution of multicellularity in many protist lineages. By watching them move you are witnessing something analogous to an ancient process!”

Colony of peritrich ciliates. Carchesium sp. 40x magnification. Darkfield.

What’s so good about this?

Algae is a big mystery of evolution. In order to understand these ancient wonders, they must be viewed with a microscope. It’s important to add context to lose barriers between scientists and non-scientists with citizen science projects and hobby microscopy.

Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

Sign up for

A World of Good

Subscribe to our free fortnightly newsletter for a kaleidoscopic look at culture, nature and positive impact