Word of the Month: Tardigrade

David Zapatka

Luz Stella Perotti, friend and science enthusiast, says this month’s word makes her laugh and have a lot of fun. She poses these questions to introduce us to her fun word. “What is the most resilient animal in the world? What living creature can withstand temperatures down to minus 458 degrees F (close to absolute zero) and up to 300 degrees F? What animal can take pressure up to six times that found in the deepest ocean trenches, resist ionizing radiation at doses hundreds of times more than the lethal dose for a human and survive the vacuum of outer space? What living animal on earth can survive without food and water for over 30 years at which time it can rehydrate, forage and reproduce?” How about one more clue? They are fondly known as “water bears” because of the way they walk reminiscent of a bear’s gait.

This month’s WOTM is tardigrade, noun ˈtär-də-ˌgrād. Origin and etymology of tardigrade: ultimately from Latin tardigradus meaning slow-moving, from tardus, slow and gradi, to step.

Tardigrades live just about everywhere on our planet. They live in moss and lichens, in bubbling hot springs, Antarctic ice, deep-sea trenches 13,000 feet below the surface of the ocean and Himalayan Mountain tops over 20,000 feet in elevation. Over 25,000 tardigrades can be found in a quart of marine or fresh water sediments. They have even been taken up into space for experimental purposes and survived the extreme cold and radiation of space. Tardigrades are taupe-like in color and are somewhat translucent. As adults they can be as long as 1/16 of an inch. Under a microscope, to some they look like hippopotamuses, mites or bears and are sometimes referred to as “bears of the moss.”

These little creatures have become so popular, admirers have created artwork and children’s books about them. The International Society of Tardigrade Hunters was formed in 2015 “to advance the study of tardigrade (water bear) biology while engaging and collaborating with the public.” The American Museum of Natural History is so enamored with tardigrades, they have a 10-foot tardigrade mounted inside the entrance to the museum. Children study them in science class. Young naturalists collect them, put them on slides and study them in their labs and homes. They’re simply that interesting and you can find them anywhere! Sound like a fun activity to do with your grandkids?

What do tardigrades do? Like many animals, not much more than survive but these interesting animals survive like nothing else! They literally spend their time hanging out, eating plants and animals smaller than themselves. When asked what their purpose in the universe is, scientists simply state they don’t know. Since tardigrades have been reconstituted more than 100 years later, some say maybe they can teach us about suspended animation. Others say creatures don’t have to have a purpose. They just are.

Did you find tardigrades interesting? Share any word you may have interest in with our readers along with your insights and comments to [email protected].