Tardigrades, more commonly known as Moss Piglets or Little Water Bears, are one of the most interesting organisms on Earth. It is believed that they could happily survive a full-on apocalypse once they’ve gone into a state of cryptobiosis (commonly referred to as turning into a tun) and they’ve been found all over the planet, even in places where it would seem impossible for them to survive. In fact, they’re pretty much everywhere, including your pond/dam/anywhere moss or algae grows, they might even be in your drinking water or toilet (don’t worry, they’re harmless).
These guys bring a whole new meaning to the term “mini mate” measuring an average of just 1mm or less in size and according to Live Science, even though they’re fascinating critters, there’s not really that much going on physically most of the time: “Structurally, tardigrades are little more than eight-legged heads with a mouth and an anus.” We’re not quite sure where exactly they came from (some believe that they’ve always been here, others hypothesize that they came from outer space) but we do know that they’ve been around for over 500 million years and that while some species are vegetarian, most of them will also eat other microorganisms and even their fellow tardigrades. The way in which they do this is rather interesting as well, with Ranker noting that they “puncture plants to absorb nutrients or to eat other microorganisms whole.” In other words “The tardigrades “sucker” and sharp teeth actually penetrate an organisms’ cells, and drinks out all the nutrients inside.”
If this isn’t enough to convince you that these little guys are great, don’t worry, we’ve saved the best for last: Tardigrades could actually have a massive positive image on humanity’s future. They’ve already helped us develop a new type of glass but the most exciting thing about Tardigrade research was recently noted in Science Focus: “Yeast and bacteria can be protected from dehydration by encoding into them the tardigrade genes for producing TDPs [‘tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered protein’]. This method could be used to produce crops that can survive droughts or medication that doesn’t need refrigeration.” That’s right ladies and gentlemen, these little guys could help us with securing the future of our food supply and even enable medical breakthroughs.
Back to ponds though: While Tardigrades don’t actually provide too many benefits for your aquatic ecosystem (they’ll eat a bit of algae here and there but not enough to rid your water of an infestation), they don’t do any harm either so we figured we’d include them in this issue. If you’d like to get up close and personal with some of them, you can do this by taking a sample of your pond water and looking at it under a standard household microscope (or magnifying glass if you don’t have a microscope but you won’t see as much). Just remember to keep your new friends wet as they’ll enter their tun state if they don’t have at least a thin coating of moisture on their bodies.
References in order of appearance:
Title image by Goldstein lab – tardigrades [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]