“STRESS TARDIGRADE” entices the Archie McPhee website. “A squishy tardigrade,” they continue, “4-1/2” long. Relaxing. Takes over 9 seconds to pop back into shape.”
In fewer than 40 words, the wordsmiths at McPhee get us up to speed on “…tardigrades, or water bears as they’re lovingly referred to.” They are “so tiny, you never know when they’re around.” And yet, “The mighty tardigrade can survive everything from outer space to dehydration to frigid temperatures.”
The stress tardigrade is considerably larger than the real thing, measuring in at a whopping 4.5 inches of “squishy polyurethane… so you could not only see it, but also squeeze it in your hand.”
“Melt Away Misery Microscopically!,” they promise. Mine arrived yesterday.
As my new desk mate would indicate, the tardigrade is enjoying a vogue among the culturally aware. Also known as water bears or moss piglets, they are less than a millimeter in length, residing in “a variety of habitats worldwide: in damp moss, on flowering plants, in sand, in fresh water, and in the sea.”
Now, notoriously, the tardigrade has landed in a new habitat — the moon.
An Unlikely Conveyance
On February 21st of this year, New York Times science reporter Kenneth Chang asked, “Can a scrappy Israeli nonprofit land on the moon on a $100 million shoestring?” We would have to wait for an answer, as “Tonight it took the first step as it launched and then set off on a long journey to the lunar surface.”
As Chang observed, SpaceIL’s Beresheet spacecraft could very possibly be the first privately built craft to make it to the moon. Its name translating roughly as “Work of Creation,” Beresheet was a $100 million labor of love, built through the labor of many volunteers.
Along with the Arch Mission Foundation’s 30-million-page archive of human civilization and history, Beresheet also carried something quite unusual, what are arguably the toughest animals on Earth. That’s right: Beresheet’s passengers included a few thousand tiny tardigrades.
For those of us who grew up hearing that the cockroach is Earth’s toughest creature, a listing of the tardigrade’s abilities is eye-opening. Ian Sample, Science Editor for The Guardian effuses, “They have been found on mountain tops, in scorching deserts, and lurking in subglacial lakes in Antarctica. In his book The Hidden Powers of Animals, Dr. Karl Shuker claimed the beasts survived being frozen in liquid helium and being boiled at 149C.”
In 2007, the alluringly entitled TARDKISS project sought to quantify some of the tardigrade’s qualities, in an effort to “develop techniques to protect other organisms, including humans, from the extreme stresses found under space conditions.”
The Moon Beckons
Space fans around the globe were rooting for it as Beresheet entered lunar orbit on Thursday, April 4. If it could negotiate its planned April 11 landing, it would join an exclusive technological club. Only NASA, the former Soviet Union and China had landed a spacecraft on the moon in one piece.
Sadly, though, it was not to be. Kenneth Chang broke the news: “A small spacecraft that has captured the imagination and excitement of people in Israel and around the world appears to have crashed into the moon….”
As one anguished being, the internet erupted: “What about the tardigrades?!!
Doing What it Does Best — Surviving
After the crash of Beresheet, it was with a certain amount of self-satisfaction, even smugness, The Arch Mission Foundation’s Nova Spivack opined to Wired Magazine, “Our payload may be the only surviving thing from that mission.”
But not everybody was feeling celebratory. In fact, Phys.org’s Monica Grady was downright surly. “We’re now polluting the moon with near indestructible little creatures.” Of the Arch Project, she said, “The project is designed to act as Noah’s Ark Mark II, providing a repository from which plants and animals could be regenerated to repopulate the Earth should a catastrophe akin to a flood of biblical proportions overtake the planet.”
She goes on, “Whether the project is far-sighted or foolish, what has roused interest is the fact that, as a result of the crash, the tardigrades may now be scattered across the lunar surface.”
Even the biggest water bear fan would have to admit she had a point. Part of their appeal, after all, is that the little scamps can exist in a dormant, spore-like state, “potentially over 100 years.”
Phys.org is a serious news source, and Ms. Grady failed to perceive any charm in the whole “Tardigrades on the Moon” thing. We need to think long and hard, she asserted, before we start exporting Earth creatures to other celestial bodies.
“Not so fast,” says the Scientific American, which as the longest continuously published magazine in America, is itself no fount of whimsy. “Tardigrades Were Already on the Moon.”
Their Caleb A. Scharf agrees with Ms. Grady, “It may not be smart to add more,” but then again, “nature probably beat us to it anyway. “Internationally vetted protocols and broad agreements” have existed for some time to protect other worlds from Earth’s flora and fauna, but he says, “efforts to sterilize spacecraft are imperfect, and we know that human spacefarers are an enormous potential cross-contamination problem. Ready or not, in decades to come, “we will see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of microbe-oozing humans deposited on the surface of Mars” and elsewhere.
Just as Europeans deposited rats, rabbits, cats, pigs and diseases across unsuspecting biomes far and wide, it is all but inevitable that tardigrades — and far less benign entities — will follow us us as we expand our presence in the universe.
“None of this appears helpful when seen through the lens of astrobiology’s search for other life,” allows Mr. Scharf. “But at the same time,” through a process known as lithopanspermia, asteroid impacts with the Earth may have been ejecting life into the cosmos since the moment it appeared here.
In short, he says, “(N)ature has been busy cross-contaminating worlds for the past 4 billion years. And hardy little critters like tardigrades have likely already been deposited far beyond the Earth.”
Fun with Microfauna
For those wishing to ride the crest of the wave that is Tardigrade-Mania, there are abundant online resources on how to catch them in the wild. As a fan rhapsodizes, “Water bears”… have always delighted microscopists.” With their “four pairs of stumpy legs and lumbering gait, they do look a little like a microscopic bear (an eight legged, microscopic bear, that is),” and “practically any handful of water has a chance of containing some.”
“If,” in your sample, “there is a water bear, you’ve struck the jackpot. Pour the water back to the moss to set up a home for it.”