When you think of the toughest animals on the planet, a few immediately come to mind: junkyard dogs, sharks, bears, cockroaches, Chuck Norris …
But without a doubt, there’s one creature that surpasses them all when it comes to actual toughness. To wit:
- This animal can withstand temperatures in excess of 150 Celsius (over the boiling point of water), as well as down to almost absolute zero (-273 degrees F).
- It can survive the vacuum of space as well as 570,000 rads of X-ray radiation (500 rads kills a mere human).
- It can go 10 years without water — yes, you read that right, 10 YEARS. And after going dormant, can be simply be resuscitated with a glass of water.
- It is found in every environment on the planet, from the ocean floor to the highest mountain, and on every continent, from the glaciers in Antarctica to the forests of Connecticut.
If you don’t already know what bad mammajamma I’m talking about, I present the tardigrade, aka the water bear!
Man, tardigrades even look nasty! Eight legs, segmented bodies with thick hides and long claws — grrrr!!!!
The good news (for us) is that tardigrades never get much bigger than a millimeter and generally live in drops of water, so that’s probably why we’re not cowering in fear of them. Chances are if they were people-sized, they would’ve kicked (or eaten) our wimpy butts long ago. Although, if you watch video of them moving, they kind of lumber along like bears (hence the name) … and yeah, they’re kind of cute!
Tardigrades have been on Earth for millions of years, and have their own phylum, featuring over over 1,000 different species. Because of their hardiness, NASA has been studying tardigrades in hopes of discovering what it is in their makup that allows them to withstand such extreme and harsh conditions. They’ve been sent into low-grade Earth orbit and exposed to space, and survived without any issues.
As mentioned, tardigrades can be found pretty much everywhere on the planet, including right here in Connecticut. If you want to find one, in addition to having a microscope, you first need to find some moss or lichen (which might be tricky at this time of year, but it’s out there). Then take the moss and rinse it off into a petri dish, and there’s a decent chance that you might find there may be some tardigrades in it.
Good luck water bear hunting! Fortunately, I don’t think you need a permit …
If you’re interested in learning more about these cool-yet-tough critters (sounds like Fonzie!), NPR recently did a nice profile of tardigrades, and you can always check out a quick tardigrade guide from Current Biology. And of course, there’s always Wikipedia.