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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Were tardigrades cute before there were human beings to recognize them?’

March 22, 2019
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

The blue jays hopping around on my porch roof are, as you know, avian dinosaurs. According to scientists, birds are the last of the dinosaurs. Somehow, they survived the mass extinction that wiped out half the life on our planet 65 million years ago.

That is impressive, and I applaud the blue jays. Or no, on second thought, I won't. Fat lot they'd care, after all.

Me, clapping: Congratulations for surviving the last Great Extinction, blue jays!

Blue jays: What's she doing now? Where are the peanuts? I'm out of here unless she throws us more peanuts.

Never mind about the birds. Thanks to a science project at the Keene Central School Science Slam last week, I am now all about tardigrades, a phyllum of translucent segmented invertebrates about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Also known as water bears and moss piglets, tardigrades have survived five mass extinctions and are still going strong.

Tardigrade means "slow stepper." Unlike most microscopic animals, they do not zip around, but move rather sluggishly, perhaps saving their strength. They have four pairs of legs with clawed hands; the hindermost pair of legs is backwards.

At this point, a tardigrade objects. "What do you mean, backwards? They are not backwards for us tardigrades. Maybe your legs are on backwards. Don't be so ethnocentric."

Scientists say tardigrades are likely to outlast human beings, and most other terrestrial life forms for that matter.

Alina Bradford, writing for "Live Science," deemed them "strangely cute."

Emma Bryce, also for "Live Science," wrote: "On the one hand, these microscopic organisms are impossibly cute, seeming like tiny blimps that bumble around harmlessly on their stubby legs. But they also enjoy a legendary reputation as the toughest, most indestructible creatures on Earth."

A blogger on a Marvel/Disney online site wrote, "They're pudgy and cute and I want one."

Another blogger replied, "There's a good chance you already have them."

Tardigrades are everywhere, under slabs of Arctic ice, in tropical rainforests, on the peaks of the Himalayas, in the treetops, in lakes, streams, meadows and gutters. They are all around us here in the Adirondacks, living in the lichens and mosses, from which they suck juices through their telescoping, toothy, little mouths. They are prey to amoebas, nematodes and other tardigrades. While some tardigrades are cannibals, others stick to a vegetarian diet.

Moss piglets, as I like to call them, normally live in a damp environment, preferably in a film of water, and in these conditions they can live about two and a half years.

If its home dries up, or becomes otherwise unlivable, however, this unique creature can adapt by turning into a dessicated little ball called a tun, through a process called cryptobiosis. In this form it can survive for decades without water, blown everywhere, like dust, in the wind.

Scientists, being what they are, have completely overlooked the perceived cuteness of tardigrades, preferring to perform experiments on them to ascertain their limits. They have boiled tardigrade tuns in water and in alcohol, subjected them to radiation and intense pressure, and even blasted them into space. Every time, when reimmersed in water, at least some of the tardigrade tuns returned to normal and began swimming around again.

According to "National Geographic," tardigrades have survived five mass extinctions over about half a billion years, much longer than humans have been on the planet. Cuteness counts, yes, but perhaps only to human beings. Look what the Japanese have done with Hello Kitty and Pokemon Pikachu, for example. But, along the lines of a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, were tardigrades cute before there were human beings to recognize them and give them affectionate names like water bears and moss piglets? Something to think about.

Not cute: the giant tardigrade creature called Ripper in "Star Trek: Discovery, Season 1, episode 3, "Context Is for Kings." This is a sort of prequel to the original Star Trek series which explores the war between the Federation and the Klingons. Ripper, a fearsome hulking beast, is eventually set free for humanitarian reasons.

Then came the Marvel film "Ant Man and the Wasp," in which heroes and their submarine ship temporarily shrink so much that water bears swimming past appear to be the size of whales. Real tardigrade footage was used to make the movie. It's on Netflix now, and it's pretty cool.

Have a good week.

 
 
 

 

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