Tough, Tiny Tardigrades

Tardigrades are hard as nails. Not that they’d start a pub brawl or anything like that; they are just ridiculously, unassumingly tough.

Imagine you’re a sci-fi and fantasy writer. You’re coming up with ideas for a new graphic novel or film. Maybe the protagonists are a bunch of Avengers style superheroes or a motley crew like Guardians of the Galaxy. You want a sidekick character. Something that’s like a pet to the heroes. Something with charm that the kids will love, but also has some amazing superpowers.

You are running some ideas over with a friend and your conversation goes something like this…

You: I think I’m going to make this little guy a bit cuddly-looking, like a mini bear.

Friend:  But that’s not very alien.

You: I’ll give it eight stumpy legs.

Friend: Cool. But what about superpowers?

You: How about it can handle ridiculous temperatures. Up to 150 degrees centigrade, and down close to absolute zero.

Friend: Nice.

You: And on its home planet it can survive insane pressures on the deep ocean floor, and live at the top of mountains.

Friend: Now you’re talking.

You: And it can withstand 10 days’ unprotected exposure to space and come away unscathed.

Friend: Er …Isn’t that a bit far-fetched?

You: And, and, and it cope with 1000 times more radiation than a human, and if things get really tough it can dry out and go into stasis for over 15 Earth years and then spring back to life with a drop of water, and, and, and … !

Friend: Oh come on. Now you’re getting carried away…

If you haven’t heard of tardigrades, they’re also known as water bears, moss piglets or even space bears, and our little sci-fi friend is not fictional at all. If you are anywhere near some moss (maybe even on a roof above your head) there are probably some of these tiny creatures very nearby. Some are just visible with the naked eye. Many you can see with a low power microscope. Just soak a bit of moss in a little water, and squeeze the liquid onto a microscope slide.

The photo is of a tardigrade found a stone's throw from my back door. If you're ever outside and can't see much in the way of wildlife, just remember that you have more company than you think, and a lot of it is weirder than you imagine!

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Wild About Sharks

I got a text from a friend the other day telling me there was a dead shark on the beach. I’m nuts about sharks. Since I was a young boy they’ve been a part of my ever-growing menagerie of more or less benign obsessions, a large proportion of which are wildlife-related.

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“I (bleep)ing love sharks!” I muttered to myself and possibly to whoever else was in the vicinity. I found the picture online: a blue shark lying forlornly on the sand, and there also happened to be a feature on these breathtakingly beautiful animals in this month’s BBC Wildlife magazine. Blue sharks are widespread globally but rare in Scottish waters. True to its name, underwater its back is superb blend of electric blue and indigo, and I stared at the images, mesmerised.

We tried to find the shark the next day but it had been taken away for what turned out to be an inconclusive autopsy. I was sad that it was dead and thrilled that it existed. This wild, ancient fish had lived for a while not that far from me, doing its sharky thing. It had neither known nor cared about my existence, and that didn't bother me in the slightest. I simply wanted to tip my hat to this superb animal with which we share a common ancestor (about 290 million years ago) and with which I share a taste for fresh mackerel.

 Blue shark on Burghead Beach. The autopsy didn't establish the cause of death. Photo credit: Jillian Blackhurst

Blue shark on Burghead Beach. The autopsy didn't establish the cause of death. Photo credit: Jillian Blackhurst

Sharks have been around for over 400 million years, and are so badass cool that they have changed very little in that time. Like most top predators, they get a hard time. Obviously Jaws didn’t help, but the creator of Jaws later deeply regretted the bad reputation that his book and film gave to sharks, and dedicated the latter years of his life to speaking out for these toothy fish and for marine ecosystems.

Blue sharks tend to hunt well away from the coast anyway, so are no real threat to us. It’s true that sharks sometimes attack humans, but given the billions of human hours spent in the water each year (in their habitat I might add), this is blown wildly out of proportion. Worldwide there were four fatal unprovoked shark attacks in 2016. Four. And how many sharks did we kill in that year? Over 100 million. One hundred million, and many of these were slaughtered in a brutal and wasteful way.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung spoke of the ‘shadow’ and believed that parts of our psyches that we don’t like get repressed and denied, only to be projected onto the world around us. Is this is what we’ve done to sharks? This important top predator which helps hold marine ecosystems in balance is painted as monster with an insatiable appetite for humans. If sharks could find something galling I’m sure this would be it: being demonised by the most ruthlessly efficient predator that has ever existed on Earth . . . Homo sapiens.

One of my nieces is even more shark-obsessed than I am and when she was six decided to make a ten-minute presentation about them. My sister sent me the video; it should be a TED talk. I learned loads about sharks from my young shark buddy and was heartened to be reminded of the fact that children often have such a deep-seated fascination with wildlife.

She is painfully aware of the plight of sharks and is determined to show that these amazing creatures deserve respect. She explains, without being sentimental, why she loves sharks so much and then rounds up her superb piece of shark advocacy with a question. With an innocent yet fierce certainty that her listeners will obviously be shark enthusiasts after hearing what she has just told them, she asks her audience matter-of-factly: “So, why do you love sharks?”

Support sharks here!: www.sharktrust.org

 Hammerheads by my shark buddy niece.

Hammerheads by my shark buddy niece.