What We Learned on Our Vacation to New Mexico. Part 1: Daphnia Magna

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One of the characteristics of Worry Free Homeschooling philosophy is that school (learning), can happen any time and any place, not just in a classroom or kitchen. Children are full of wonder and are eager to learn in a natural setting. It’s only when we set them in front of books with pencils and paper that they sometimes become resistant to the learning process. Though that process is sometimes necessary (think multiplication tables), we should minimize their use and seek to teach our kids through their natural curiosity.

Vacation to (nearly) Paradise!

My family returned three days ago from a wonderful and much needed two week trip to New Mexico. We camped our way there, stopping on our first night at Lake Mineral Wells State Park, which is located about an hour west of Fort Worth, Texas. We had already visited the lake once, back in December, when it was too cold to swim.

On that first visit we walked the trails and had a blast rock climbing. We saw that the lake itself was beautiful, and made the decision then, that we would come back in the summer, to kayak and swim, and that’s why we stopped there two weeks ago.

Something in the Water!

Within an hour of pulling into the camping area, we were set up and changed into our bathing suits. We loaded up our tubes and kayak and headed to the beach. Shortly after getting into the water, we all began to notice a scratchy, itchy feeling under our bathing suits, as if someone had put itching powder in them. I usually wear a shirt when I swim in a lake so that I won’t burn, but the itching was so bad that I took it off, which provided immediate relief from what ever it was. My poor wife and daughters didn’t have that luxury and my oldest daughter got out of the water and refused to get back in.

Going Fishing

My first thought was that there might be some chemical in the water, and that we should all get out. But that didn’t make sense because the itching stopped when I removed my shirt.

I decided to use my shirt like a (very fine) fish net to see if there was something biological in the water that was causing our discomfort, some sort of plant or tiny water bug that might be stinging or biting us and driving us crazy. So, there I was, dredging my shirt through the water like some sort of fisherman searching for a tiny school of biting sea monsters.

No doubt, I looked silly to the other 40 -50 people at the beach and swimming in the same water. After all, I heard none of them complain about the mysterious itch. Never the less, I continued to dredge my shirt through the water and Jackpot! I netted something. Trapped in my shirt was a pile of what looked and felt like a gelatinous mass of thousands of little creatures or plant material. What ever it was, they was too small to identify. Were they tiny bugs? Some sort of aquatic stinging nettle?

There was a man standing in the waist deep water nearby, and I called him over to look at my catch. He looked at the goop in my shirt as I explained what I was doing. Then he looked back at me as if I was some sort of crazy conspiracy theorist and walked away.

I showed what ever it was that I had filtered out of the water to More Love Mama and my kids. We speculated on whether it was plant or animal, but it was just too small to identify. The only thing we could agree on was, this stuff was probably causing our scratchy itching. I dumped my catch back into the water and we went back to the campsite.

Never Miss an Opportunity to Learn

That evening, while the kids played, I couldn’t stop thinking about the mystery organism in the water. I needed to ask someone about it or get a better look at it. And, that’s when I remembered that we have a digital microscope at home. All, I needed was to go back to the beach and get a specimen that we could look at when we got home from our trip, and the mystery would be solved! (By the way, I will soon write an article about microscopes, so stay tuned.)

First thing the next morning, I went back to the beach with a shirt, and began dredging. Nothing! Where did they go, those masses of whatever? I spotted a ranger nearby and explained my weird activity (no doubt, he was wondering what the heck I was doing). To my surprise, he said “Yeah, those are Daphnia Magna also known as water fleas”. He went on to explain that they don’t bite, but rather it’s their legs that cause the irritating scratchiness that we had experienced the previous day.

Well, at least we discovered what they were. But, still, I wanted to collect a specimen. So I continued to dredge my shirt through the water. Eventually, I caught a couple of specks that looked like they might be my quarry. I went back to the van, placed my shirt on the dash board to dry and explained to my family that no one was to touch that shirt because it had something in it that we could look at with our microscope when we got home from our trip.

So there the shirt sat, on the dashboard, for two weeks.

Can’t Wait!

The day after we got home from our trip, I took out that shirt and went over it carefully, until I spotted something that looked like a dried up insect, about one millimeter in size. Was this it? Our own specimen of Daphnia?

I put the specimen under the microscope and let the kids look at it before boldly announcing “This is what was making us itch at Lake Mineral Wells.” The kids looked at it in awe, they thought it was totally cool to see the tiny animal under magnification. I on the other hand was in awe at the miracle of my kids learning something new. There was nothing schoolish about the experience, no time set aside, no workbooks, no writing. Just learning, in a naturally curious way.

Here’s our specimen. It doesn’t look much like a Daphnia Magna to me. Perhaps a tiny mosquito?

Second Thoughts

The more I look at our specimen, the more questions I have about it. To me it looks more like a tiny mosquito. Maybe it’s just a dried up Daphnia, or part of one. Maybe it’s a tiny mosquito. Perhaps, the ranger was wrong, and this is some other itchy water creature. Whatever it is, we are going to have to get another specimen before we can come to a conclusion as to whether or not the picture above is in fact a Daphnia. I guess we’ll have to go camping at Lake Mineral Wells again next summer. For now, we have more questions than answers.


That’s the way of science, isn’t it? We learn stuff, only to discover there are now even more mysteries to solve. This is God’s way of showing us just how awesomely complex his creation is. I think He takes joy in our wonder. I know I take joy in seeing that wonder in the eyes of my children.

And to think, I came to this epiphany, while on vacation.

Brian Wood

Daddy Go To Timeout


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Also, stay tuned for part two in this mini-series entitled “What we Learned On Our Trip to New Mexico. Part 2: Geology, Biology and History“. You won’t want to miss it.

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