Not a ‘water bearer” – that’s Aquarius you’re thinking of. It’s a water bear you’re being offered here…
What’s a water bear, you may ask. Maybe you’ve never heard of them. Then you’re forgiven. Neither had I, until around six weeks ago when I was searching for images of moss.
They are also called moss piglets by the imaginative, but officially they are known as tardigrades.
They were first described in 1773 by German pastor J A E Goeze and named Tardigrada (slow stepper) three years later by the Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani.
These little creatures are from 0.05 to 1.2 mm long. They are covered in whitish skin resembling that of a silkworm, or the padded upholstery of a white leather sofa and they have a mouth like the aperture of a camera. They possess eight legs which terminate in from four to eight claws. There are over a thousand known species of the little organisms.
They are much tougher than you are. After all, they have had 500 million years to practice. The little creatures developed during the great proliferation of life which characterized the Cambrian period, and have never looked back. In fact, they are the world’s most resilient species and can withstand temperatures from well below freezing (-272 C) up to about 150 C. Just as you do, they prefer to be comfortable, so they thrive better in normal conditions but can handle these extremes without serious consequences. Perhaps they complain inaudibly among one another but no one can vouch for this.
Dear Sentinel: Where can I find a dear, cuddly little water bear of my very own?
– Sincerely, Earnest Tardigrade Seeker, Cow’s Ankle, Ark.
There may well be a colony of water bears living very near you, especially if you have moss growing anywhere. You may find them under stones or the bark of trees, in a lake or pond, at the beach or in a wall. But if there are, you won’t see them, however impressive they look, unless you have a microscope or magnifying glass handy
However, if you’re more adventurous than most, you can go to an altitude of 5 546m in the Himalayas, dive into a Japanese hot spring, go to the ocean floor or take a little trip to Antarctica to find your new, highly economical but scarcely visible pet.
They feed on the fluids of plant and animal cells, as well as bacteria. So your tardigrade won’t starve, even if the earth’s poles shift or the temperature in your local community rises to levels that will make your body fat drip. They can, if need be, survive without food or water for up to ten years and still be able to rehydrate and successfully reproduce after that. Their metabolism can drop to .01% of normal and their moisture content to 1% of normal. So even if you live deep in the Atacama during a lengthy drought your tardigrade will survive better than you can.
Not to be confused with a scene from the movie Aliens, when the team is looking for the missing colonists….
They would very likely be in a position to thrive on other planets in our system where you would be lucky to enjoy life longer than it would take to set up your digital camera for a single selfie, showing your last spasmodic gulps, while your tardigrade surveys her new surroundings with the same incurious equanimity as always.
When you’re foaming at the mouth from radiation sickness and wondering, in between flashbacks of the more memorable events in your life, if your tardigrade will survive without you, fear not. She will live on and thrive. In 2007 thousands of tardigrades were jetted off into space as miniscule passengers aboard a satellite and many survived. A good deal of the “ladygrade” guests had laid eggs and the hatchlings were in good nick.
They went into space in 2011 as guests of the International Space Station, and family members were also aboard the final flight of space shuttle Endeavour. Once again they proved themselves excellent little cosmonauts.
They can withstand doses of radiation a thousand times higher than a dose lethal to other species on the planet and survive pressures six times higher than that found at the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches which would crush you flatter than a tenderized tortilla.
Keep her away from predators such as amoebas, nematodes and large species of tardigrade with carnivorous tendencies, and your own little tardigrade should be fine. Even amoebas need to keep those single cells of theirs nourished so they can form pseudopods and cruise Pacman-style around their neighbourhood, so water bears need to keep their distance.
You’ll easily be able to view her and her activities under a low power microscope. The largest adults will reach a size of around 1.5 mm.
Tardigrade life expectancy is about a year, so they compare well with various rodents and you should be able to enjoy the Four Seasons with your newly acquired microscopic life form.
When tardigrades are dehydrated, they coat themselves in glass-like molecules which are being researched by scientists. They are looking at developing synthesized superglass based on the structures produced by the tardigrades which will improve the performance of electronic devices such as optical fibres, light-emitting diodes and solar cells. Professor De Pablo and his colleagues in Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago have recently published their findings. Professor De Pablo and his fellows believe these new molecular forms of glass are building blocks of the future, so we can certainly expect to see new and exciting developments in engineering come from this.
They have their royalty. Just ask Thomas Gieseke from Merriam, Kansas, who painted the following picture of Her Royal Highness Tardianne of the House of Tardor. Women rule in their universe: they are generally larger and more abundant than their male counterparts.
Each individual within the same species has the same number of cells. Some species have as many as 40 000 cells.
Your favourite tardigrade specimen may even be nominated or accepted to become the Tardigrade of the Week on the Tardigrade Hunters website.
Yes, an entire website is dedicated to the search for the most beautiful water bears, wherever they may be hiding out. So you too can join the crusade to locate the most photogenic tardigrades on the planet.
When scientists from the American museum of Natural History wanted to make tardigrades the star feature of a display of extreme creatures titled Life at the Limits, all they had to do was scoop up some moss from a shady area of Central Park and voila! – the show could go on with its tiny performers.
Don’t panic. They will never become extinct while the earth lasts and may well be around a few billion years more, while the Sun lets some life live on this rock until it becomes a red giant and eats up the earth like a Triceratops gobbling up a fig. Tardigrades have been encircling the sun a good bit longer than our most remote ancestors.