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I have recently fallen in love with a little creature. It isn't a furry or cute creature, in fact, it looks like an alien from an episode of Star Trek and it isn't very big – between 1mm and 1.5 mm at the largest, but what it lacks in looks and size it makes up for by being the single most extraordinary creature on the planet.
My new favorite creature is called a Tardigrade, or more commonly, a water bear. You can't gaze into it's weird little face unless you have some pretty powerful magnification at hand, but if you do you will be looking at the features of the toughest living thing on earth. Personally, I think they are kind of adorable.
The Tardigrade is an invertebrate and the only creature on earth that has survived all 5 cataclysmic events in the history of the planet. There are at least 900 known species and they live everywhere, from the highest peaks of the Himalayas to the most extreme depths of the oceans. They live in your backyard, particularly in mosses, which they seem to find particularly comfortable. The Tardigrade can survive temperatures from just above absolute zero to above the boiling point of water. They can live beneath ice and in the boiling hot craters of active volcanoes. The amazing Tardigrade can survive 5,700 grays of radiation. That may not mean much to you until you realize that 10-20 greys of radiation will kill humans and most other animals on the planet. Tardigrades cannot drown, so they really had no need of Noah or his ark. They are almost impossible to dehydrate since they are able to go from 85% body water content to 3%, rehydrate, forage, and still reproduce. Tardigrades have this handy dandy ability to put themselves into a form of stasis and survive without water or food for at least 10 years if their environment diminishes. I am envious of this particular ability. I would have loved to have been able to do that during this past winter. I would have stayed in stasis through the entire horrible experience.
NASA sent Tardigrades into space with the astronauts, who behaved quite rudely and put them out into the vacuum of space just to see what would happen. What happened was that the Tardigrades survived the experience no worse for wear, thereby proving themselves vastly superior to the guys who stuck them out there.
Extreme pressure is nothing to a Tardigrade. Go ahead and put them on the bottom of the ocean or under miles of ice – they don't care. Plop them onto Mount Everest or in the middle of the Sahara – no biggie. Stick them in a volcanic crater or push them into the cold, empty darkness of space – not a problem. Drop an asteroid on them that kills a bunch of enormous dinosaurs – So what? Douse them with enough radiation to kill every other living thing on the planet and its all good.
Frankly, I can't help kind of worshiping the mighty Water Bear. At the very least, you have no choice but to respect and admire it. There is no getting around it, the Tardigrade may not have come up with cell phones and Ipods, or built the pyramids or invented toasters, but when we and all that we have built is nothing more than dust in the wind, the Tardigrade will rule the planet. The Tardigrade deserves his own temple or at the very least, a statue.. I may have to make a little Tardigrade temple out of Legos or something in his honor. I think I can make something that reasonably resembles a Water Bear out of Legos. Why not? You can make practically anything out of Legos.
On top of everything else almost supernatural about the Tardigrade it seems that they have a lifespan of at least 200 years. Despite hatching from eggs as full adults, they don't have to worry about aging much. Evidently, the Tardigrade can repair its own DNA and is the only creature that can. This is a particularly neat trick and extremely useful and I bet that after as they get older they look a lot better than some Hollywood stars I can think of.
Some evolutionary biologists theorize that since the oldest fossils on earth are Tardigrades and they seem oblivious to the things in the universe that are trying to kill the rest of us, they may have been the creature that traveled on comets or asteroids from other places in the galaxy and smashed into the earth in the early stages of its development. It is postulated that In short, the tiny Tardigrade may be the very first living thing on the planet. True or not, it seems rather certain that they will probably be the last.
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