You’ve heard of grizzly bears, black bears, and polar bears, but prepare to meet the fiercest bear of them all…and he happens to be smaller than a grain of rice!

The water bear, alongside the moss piglet, is a species of tardigrade, a group of microscopic organisms no larger than a single millimetre in length. Resembling what can only be described as a puffy tube of toothpaste with stumpy legs. The creature is as close to a live gummy bear as we’ve got. Despite this cute exterior, however, it is the inner workings of the water bear that should really be grabbing our attention. The tardigrade, it seems, is almost entirely indestructible.

This astounding survival mechanism has allowed the water bear to thrive on our planet for the past 500 million years!

Species of tardigrade have been thrown into boiling temperatures up to 148°C, and submerged in unimaginably freezing conditions of -272°C. They have been dehydrated, starved and exposed to high radiation. They have even been catapulted into space without any form of teeny spacesuits on to protect them from the all of the dangers of a vacuum. The tardigrade has undergone every Mission Impossible-style situation imaginable, and has still emerged on the other side unscathed.

How has the water bear managed to achieve such incredible resilience? The answer lies in its ability to carry out a unique process known as cryptobiosis. During this process, the water bear will lose all of its internal fluids, hardening its flexible essential proteins into a rigid matrix and coating them in a protective substance known as bioglass. The dehydrated water bear then shrivels and hardens into a little ball referred to as a ‘tun.’

The tiny creature is depicted as described in the text.
The Tardigrade. Source: Willow Gabriel, Goldstein Lab

 

In its ‘tun’ state, the water bear is as close to death as an organism can get to without actually being declared dead. With all life processes now operating 100 times slower than normal, the creature has effectively paused itself, and it is in this suspended state that it manages to survive prolonged exposure to extreme environments. Once the coast is clear and the water bear is reintroduced to liquid water, it can then effortlessly rehydrate back to its usual puffy self. This astounding survival mechanism has allowed the water bear to thrive on our planet for what is believed to be the past 500 million years.

smaller than a grain of rice!

This year, a new species of moss piglet was found in none other than a parking lot in Tsuruoka, Japan. Researcher Kazuharu Arakawa came across the micro-animal after scooping up some moss growing in the lot, later noticing it to contain a member of a previously undiscovered species of tardigrade. With slight differentiations in its shape and the texture of its eggs, scientists hope the new discovery will allow them to shed more light on the evolution of this intriguing creature.

The incredible and complex life processes bottled within the microscopic body of the tardigrade serve as a reminder that even in completely unassuming parts of the world – such as a random clump of moss, growing in a random parking lot of a random city, –fascinating new discoveries can still be uncovered. For this reason, it gets a solid tardi-grade A in my book.

For more weird and wonderful creatures, science and articles keeping looking through the science section, it’s as impressive as the tardigrade is unbreakable!

 

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