Tag Archives: New species

Amusing Monday: Water bears live in fire and ice, maybe in your driveway

Plump little microscopic creatures, commonly called “water bears” or “moss piglets,” have gained a reputation as the most indestructible animals on Earth, with some species living in the cold Arctic and others living in flaming hot volcanoes.

New species of tardigrade, Macrobiotus shonaicus // Photo: Daniel Stec, PLOS One

They have been known to survive 30 years without food. Researchers have dehydrated them, frozen them, bombarded them with radiation and even sent them into the vacuum of space. While a few died along the way, a remarkable percentage have lived through extreme endurance trials and just kept on going.

I’m talking about a group of more than a thousand species known collectively as tardigrades, whose largest members are no bigger than a pinhead. Many are much smaller. These tiny lumbering little creatures with short appendages occupy the phylum Tardigrada, Latin for “tortoise-like movement.”

Amusing just by being themselves, tardigrades also have been featured in cartoons — including an entire episode of Southpark, in which science students teach them to dance to Taylor Swift songs and then do the Hokey Pokey before the little guys are accidentally turned into football fans destined to save the NFL.

More worthy of note is the real-life story of Kazuharu Arakawa, a researcher at Tokyo’s Kelo University who had been studying and reclassifying tardigrades in Japan using refined morphological criteria along with advanced DNA analysis.

On a whim, Kazuharu picked up a clump of moss that he found growing in a concrete parking lot near his apartment complex. He took the sample to his lab, placed it under a microscope and found viable tardigrades, supporting the notion that these creatures can live anywhere. Further study revealed that Kazuharu had discovered a new species of tardigrade, whose defining features include its eggs, which seem to reach out with tentacle-like appendages.

Egg of Macrobiotus shonaicus, showing filaments of varying lengths (scale: microns)
Photo: Daniel Stec, PLOS One

For confirmation, Kazuharu called on tardigradologists at Jagiellonian University in Poland. They eventually named the species Macrobiotus shonaicus and wrote up their technical findings, which were published last week in the journal Plos One.

The paper’s lead author, Daniel Stec, describes why the study of tardigrades is important to humanity in an interview with Tessa Gregory, of PLOS Research News:

“The most basic reason is human curiosity,” Daniel said, “and once you fall in love with tardigrades you only want to know more, especially since there is still so much to discover about them. However, there are also other reasons. Recently, tardigrades started to be used as model organisms in a variety of studies ranging from astrobiology, developmental and cell biology, physiology, evolutionary ecology and many other disciplines, in hope to address more general questions.”

The ability of a living creature to survive extremes could have useful applications on a human scale.

“Tardigrades became very famous in popular culture thanks not only to their undeniable cuteness, but mostly because of their ability to enter into cryptobiosis, a latent state in which virtually no metabolic activity can be detected. Yet, when dried or frozen tardigrades are provided with liquid water they come back to life as if nothing had ever happened,” he continued.

“This ability to withstand harsh conditions and to suspend their lives inspired researchers to produce dry vaccines that don’t require refrigeration or create transgenic human cells that are more resistant to irradiation. Who knows, maybe someday, thanks to tardigrades, we will be able to preserve organs for transplantation, extend our lifespan, or travel to other planets and stars, not worrying about detrimental effects of cosmic radiation.”

Stories about the new findings and other details about tardigrades:

Tardigrades are the subject of many amusing products, including T-shirts with the slogans:

You can even find tardi-games, like the one by Schell Games below.


Amu

Amusing Monday: Celebrating Alvin’s animals

This year is the 50th anniversary of Alvin, a deep-sea vehicle that has made some incredible scientific discoveries over the past half-century.

The latest issue of Oceanus magazine is a special edition that takes us through the history of Alvin, including its part in locating a lost hydrogen bomb, investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and documenting the remains of the Titanic.

Read “The Once & Future Alvin,” Oceanus Summer 2014.

What really drew my attention to this issue is a photo feature called “Alvin’s Animals.” It was posted as a slide show in the online version of Oceanus. It registered high on my amusing meter, and I encourage you to click through the buttons that take you from one odd-looking creature to the next.

One of Alvin’s most significant discoveries came in 1977, when the submersible traveled to the Galapagos Rift, a deep-water area where volcanic activity had been detected. Scientists had speculated that steaming underwater vents were releasing chemicals into the ocean water. They got to see that, but what they discovered was much more: a collection of unique clams, worms and mussels thriving without sunlight.

These were lifeforms in which bacteria played a central role at the base of a food web that derives its energy from chemicals and not photosynthesis.

Since then, other deep-sea communities have been discovered and documented throughout the world, with hundreds of new species examined and named.

The Oceanus article also describes in some detail the just-completed renovation that has given Alvin new capabilities. The people responsible for various aspects of the make-over are interviewed in this special edition.

The first video on this page is by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution celebrating Alvin’s 50th birthday. The second is a walk-around the newly renovated craft by Jim Motavalli, who usually writes about ecologically friendly automobiles.