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7 Tough Facts About Tardigrades

Tardigrades are tough, tubby, and tiny. There are more than 1000 species, and all of them are itty-bitty—about the size of a grain of sand. 

1. ALL OF THEIR NAMES ARE CUTE.

Tardigrades are also known as “water bears” and “moss piglets” for the endearing way they trundle across their chosen habitats. Even the word tardigrade means “slow-moving.” 

2. THEY’RE OLD.

“Old” doesn’t really begin to cover it. Scientists estimate that tardigrades have been around for 600 million years. To put that in perspective: Dinosaurs first appeared about 230 million years ago, which makes T. rex and friends the new kids on the block. 

3. THEY CAN LIVE PRETTY MUCH ANYWHERE.

And we do mean anywhere. True to their nicknames, most tardigrades prefer living in the water or on damp places on land in the world’s temperate zones. Dirt, leaf litter, and patches of moss are favorite hangouts. But those are just the tardigrade’s preferred habitat; these tiny animals could easily live in the fires of Mount Doom if they had to. They may be little, but they’re darn near unkillable.

Moss piglet under a microscope. Image Credit: Bob Goldstein, UNC Chapel Hill.

4. THEY’VE GOT A SUPERPOWER.

What makes tardigrades so tough? One word: cryptobiosis. Translated literally, cryptobiosis means “hidden life,” and that’s exactly what it is: a form of suspended animation in which organisms can go on living even as they look dead. Cryptobiosis is the secret to Sea Monkeys; it’s also the reason tardigrades can survive pretty much anything. So when times get tough, tardigrades play dead. They hunch up into little dried husks and more or less shut down, which drops their metabolisms to 0.01 percent of their usual rate. In this deathlike state, the tardigrade becomes nearly untouchable. 

5. THEY DON’T FUSS WITH THE THERMOSTAT.

Tardigrades can withstand temperatures that would easily fry or freeze a human being. Scientists have exposed them to heat over 300°F and cold below 1° Kelvin, or -458°F—a temperature at which most substances go bananas. Liquids turn to solids and gases turn to liquids, but the hardy tardigrade just keeps on truckin’.

6. THEY CAN LIVE IN SPACE. LIKE, OUTSIDE.

Without the aid of a pressurized suit, humans can survive just a few minutes in the vacuum of space. Tardigrades can make it for 10 days. But the hazards of space go beyond mere skull-crushing pressure; there’s also UV radiation. Humans can withstand about 500 roentgens, or units, of ionizing radiation, but it takes more than 100 times that much to kill a tardigrade. 

7. YOU CAN GET YOUR OWN.

If, after reading all these facts, you find yourself helplessly charmed by the tardigrade, don’t fear: You can buy one. A stuffed one, anyway. But that’s probably for the best; a real pet tardigrade might make you feel inadequate.

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These Deep-Sea Worms Could Live More Than a Thousand Years

Plunge below the sparkling surface of the Gulf of Mexico, head down into the depths, and there you'll find the ancient ones, growing in clusters of drab tubes like piles of construction equipment. Scientists writing in the journal The Science of Nature report that some of these worms could be more than 1000 years old.

When it comes to marine organisms, the deeper you go, the slower and older life gets. Biologists have found an octopus that guarded her eggs for four and a half years. They've seen clams born during the Ming dynasty and sharks older than the United States. They've seen communities of coral that have been around for millennia.

Previous studies have shown that some species of tube worm can live to be 250 years old. To find out if the same was true for other species—in this case, the Gulf of Mexico's Escarpia laminata—researchers spent years watching them grow. They used a long-lasting dye called Acid Blue to mark six clusters of worms, then let them to go about their wormy business. A year later, they collected all 356 blue-stained tubes and brought them back to the lab to measure their growth.

By calculating the speed of the worms' growth and comparing it to the size of the largest individuals, the scientists could devise a pretty good estimate of the oldest worms' age.

And boy, are they old. The researchers' worm-growth simulation suggested that the most ancient individuals could be more than 9000 years old. This seems incredible, even for tough old tube worms, so the scientists calculated a more conservative maximum age: a mere 1000 years.

A millennium-long lifespan is an extreme and not the average, the paper authors note. "There may indeed be large E. laminata over 1000 years old in nature, but given our research, we are more confident reporting a life span of at least 250 to 300 years," lead author Alanna Durkin of Temple University told New Scientist.

Still, Durkin says, "E. laminata is pushing the bounds of what we thought was possible for longevity."

She's excited by the prospect of finding older creatures yet.

"It's possible that new record-breaking life spans will be discovered in the deep sea,” she says, “since we are finding new species and new habitats almost every time we send down a submersible.”

 

[h/t New Scientist]

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Animals
Watch as Hummingbirds Fly, Drink, and Flap Their Tiny Wings in Slow Motion
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Hummingbirds have more feathers per inch than nearly any other bird, but it’s hard to fully appreciate their luminescent colors when they beat their wings between 70 to 200 times per second.

For the enjoyment of birders everywhere, National Geographic photographer Anand Varma teamed up with bird biologists and used a high-speed, high-resolution camera to capture the tiny creatures in slow motion as they flew through wind tunnels, drank artificial nectar from a glass vessel, and shook water from their magnificent plumage.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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