Friday, June 28, 2013

Meet the tardigrade

Now here’s a question. Actually, here’s several questions, but they all have the same answer.

What has eight legs, but can hardly bend them?

What can survive at temperatures from just above absolute zero to well above the boiling point of water?

What can go without food or drink for up to 120 years?

What can maintain life in the vacuum of outer space, withstand radiation levels 1,000 times higher than other animals, and exist at  pressures far greater than those at the bottom of the ocean?

What looks a bit like a cross between a teddy bear and a rag doll, but grows at most to 1.5mm long?

What has been around on this planet for at least 530 million years?

A tardigrade, yesterday
What can be most easily found by squeezing out damp moss, but also lives in hot springs, on top of the Himalayas, in glacial ice or even in walls and roofs?

What, in short, is the most mind-bogglingly weird creature that you’ve probably never heard of?

The answer is the tardigrade, known to its friends as the water bear.

A beast whose official name means “slow walker,” on account of those eight, rather inflexible, legs.

A beast so unrecognised by us allegedly higher forms of life that even the all-wise spell-checker on the Chronicle Towers computer system throws a wobbly whenever it tries to do a name-check.

A beast so far-flung across the globe that there are around 1,150 separate species, ranging from the poles to the equator, from the ocean depths to the highest mountain.

Weirder still, and straining the poor old spell-checker to breaking point: tardigrades are eutelic, which means that each adult member of any given species has exactly the same number of cells. (Many thanks to whoever it was who counted.)

So what, you may ask, has all this got to do with the price of fish? Or the proposed new Bus Gate? Or the demented gannets that dive-bomb you every time you take a stroll across Kingsmead Square?

Not a lot,  it must be confessed.

But sometimes you just have to stand back from the humdrum, and marvel at the world we live in.

And this is one of those times.