Top 10 Reasons Tardigrades Might Be the Coolest Animals Ever

What the Heck Are They?

There are more than 1,100 species of these tiny invertebrates. Tardigrades are purported to be closely related to arthropods like crustaceans, spiders, and other insects. But their classification is still somewhat of a mystery due to their many unique attributes and because there is no way to directly correlate them to the arthropod family.

Little Body, Killer Teeth

Tardigrades belong to a special category of animals referred to as extremophiles. This simply means they can survive in conditions most other creatures can’t, including humans. They have a translucent body with an exoskeleton that consists of four segments and eight stubby legs with four teeny, tiny claws on each used to grab onto the surfaces from which they feed. Their heads are a well-defined fifth segment, even if they look a bit squished.

Been Around for Millenia

Despite only recently being studied in more depth, they were discovered back in 1773 by J.A.E. Goeze, a German pastor. Three years after that, they were given the name Tardigrada, “slow stepper,” by an Italian biologist named Lazarro Spallanzani. And recent studies have revealed that they have a much longer history than when people finally began recognizing their existence.

Desiccated and Frozen…but Alive

These little guys are most often found in water, especially fresh water. But they also live in every habitat on Earth where water is present, from Antarctica to the oceans to tropical rainforests to mountaintops and even in sand and soil. The easiest place to find and study them is in the water film found on mosses and lichens. So yes, you can likely find them in your own backyard, especially if you live near a body of freshwater!

A Fungi Diet

So what do they eat? Mainly they feast on mosses, flowering plants, bacterias, and lichens, or as they are more commonly known, fungi. They are also known to slurp on animal cells, and some of them are actually cannibals, eating other tardigrades. They suction out the fluids that are nutrient-rich after using that kind of disturbing mouth to puncture the cell walls and membranes of their targets. It’s a really good thing they don’t have a taste for us, or they wouldn’t be quite so cute anymore.

Extreme Survival

Let’s learn a little more about that remarkable ability to come back to life that has made the scientific world so keen to study them further. Through a process known as cryptobiosis, they are able to slow their metabolic rate to as low as 0.01 percent, essentially making it possible for them to survive without eating. Their organs are protected by a sugary gel that continues to produce a large amount of antioxidants.

Brace for Impact

Water bears aren’t entirely indestructible or immortal despite their many shocking survival capabilities. It may seem that way, but they do have some weaknesses and will eventually die. One thing they definitely cannot survive is human stomach acid, which is a good thing because you’ve almost certainly drunk some in your lifetime without knowing.

Walk This Way

Watch them walk! The videos are out there now, and it is precious. When they are not swimming, tardigrades lumber along on those eight little legs in search of moss and mushrooms to suck dry. And they have the gait of insects 500,000 times larger than them and even crustaceans. It looks surprisingly similar to galloping. They just do it very, very slowly. Ever feel like a tardigrade without your morning coffee?

Males Need Not Be Present

The Moss Piglets have some interesting reproduction practices too. Some species even reproduce asexually. The female lays the eggs, and they develop on their own with no need for external fertilization. Clean and efficient (but maybe not as fun). It also eliminates the need for any males in the species (um…wait a minute there). If you’re a fan of science fiction or horror films, watch No Men Beyond This Point, and you’ll see what might happen if people went the way of the self-reproducing tardigrade!

Tiny Alien?

Because of their multitude of strange and death-defying attributes, there’s a belief spreading that the tardigrades are aliens that arrived here on a meteor. This is probably more science fiction than fact. But that didn’t stop people from turning them into aliens. We sent them to the moon after all, if only by accident. Poor little water angels.