New Species of Near-Indestructible Tardigrades Found in Parking Lot

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
An artist's rendering of the small but mighty tardigrade. 3Dstock/Shutterstock

You have to cheer for the tardigrade.

For all the things humans throw at these creatures — from ecosystem-toppling development to climate change — these moss-munchers just take a lickin' (some might say lichen) and keep on tickin'. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself there.)

The thing is, tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, don't need a cheering section. No matter how hostile the environment, they're built to handle anything we throw at them. They're dehydration-proof, temperature-proof, radiation-proof — glaring confirmation that no one builds a better tank than Mother Nature.

These microscopic marvels may be a boon to humans, too, which is why the discovery of a new species in Japan could prove a scientific bonanza.

A New Tardigrade

The new water bear on the block, Macrobiotus shonaicus, was found in a patch of moss in a Japanese parking lot. It brings the number of known species in that country alone to 168. Worldwide, there are more than 1,000.

Tardigrade oral cavity as seen under microscope
From the legs to the visual organs to the oral cavity pictured here, the new species is a distinctly different looking tardigrade. D. Stec et al., 2018

While researchers, led by Polish scientist Daniel Stec, found 10 members of M. shonaicus in that parking lot, they have since managed to breed more in the lab and subject them to a broad spectrum of tests.

Their findings, published this week in PLOS One, suggest M. shonaicus boasts a DNA that's distinctly different from other tardigrades. Notably, members of the new species have unique physical traits — from the shape of their legs to the way they see the world to the nature of their eggs — that set them apart.

Having a whole new species to study — from an animal that's already a research darling — only opens the door wider for scientists to learn more about its incredible physiology.

Built to Survive

Unsurprisingly, scientists have been particularly interested in the tardigrade's astounding powers of survivability. In a 2016 study, scientists thawed a tardigrade that had been frozen in Antarctic ice for 30 years — only to see the creature flicker to life and resume its business like the Soviet Union never collapsed, Microsoft never introduced the world to Windows and Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" never reached No. 19 on the Billboard charts.

Imagine what that kind of freezability could do for humans. Human-helmed space odysseys that last a century? Terminally ill people being put on ice until a cure is found? We could see a social trend on the horizon — let's just say, man buns — and decide to ice it for the next decade.

And apart from a tardigrade's freezability, those nuclear-proof genes could help us hightail it out of here if we really mess things up.

As University of Manchester professor Matthew Cobb told the BBC last year, "these genes could even help us bioengineer organisms to survive in extremely hostile environments, such as on the surface of Mars — [perhaps] as part of a terra-forming project to make the planet hospitable for humans."

So carry on, tardigrades. Be indifferent to us (along with temperature, nuclear holocausts and time itself.) We're just happy we found the one thing on this planet we can't break.