Tardigrade—also known as water bears or moss piglets—are among the toughest life forms on Earth. They’re also incredibly abundant.
There are over 1,200 known species of tardigrades, which usually only a couple of millimeters large at most. Scientists discover about 20 new species per year. In a paper published yesterday in PLOS One, researchers from Jagiellonian University in Poland identified the 168th species of tardigrade found to live in Japan alone. Scientists didn’t have to travel far to discover the new species of tardigrades, which were found snuggled up in a mossy bed in a parking lot.
That’s a pretty chill location for tardigrades, which can live essentially everywhere, but prefer to do so where there’s water and a bit of hard surface. They can endure exceedingly severe environments: Scientists have documented instances of them vitrifying, or converting their cells into glass-like structures instead of freezing, and returning to life after up to 30 years. They be completely dehydrated, tolerate outer space, and deal with extreme pressures (paywall) that exceed twice of what normally kill other kinds of life, including us. Scientists first found these critters in the late 18th century, but fossils of them date back to 500 million years ago.
Finding new tardigrade species, therefore, doesn’t necessarily involve searching far and wide—but looking more closely. In this case, Kazuharu Arakawa, an environmental scientist and co-author of the paper, noticed a patch of moss growing in the parking lot outside of his rented apartment and took a sample of it back to the lab. He and two of his colleagues used scanning electron microscopy and phase contrast light microscopy (essentially, super detailed microscopic imaging) and found a tardigrade unlike any they had seen before.
Specifically, these tardigrades are unique in that they lay hard-shell eggs with bendy fibrous filaments on top, most likely to better adhere to surfaces. They also have an extra lump of flesh above one of their legs. An additional DNA analysis showed the team that these creatures are similar to species found in South America, but are otherwise completely unique.
The more tardigrades scientists can study, the better: By understanding how these creatures can survive in extreme conditions, they can develop technologies based on them. For example, unlocking the secrets of tardigrade’s biological antifreeze and dehydration survival skills could help develop easily distributable freeze-dried vaccines, as Gizmodo notes. Isolating their genetic ability to repair themselves after exposure to radiation could one day help astronauts brave cosmic rays.
If you’re intrigued by tardigrades, you can probably track some down yourself. Back in the year 2000, amateur tardigrade aficionado Mike Shaw noticed (paywall) that he could find water bears by scraping off lichen and bark from trees in the areas around his former New Jersey home. After leaving the sample in a petri dish with water, even a low-quality microscope should be able to illuminate some tiny indestructible beings.