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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