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  • Sara Thompson

Tardigrades: Tiny, but Tough

By Sara Thompson

Image credit are Elham Schokraie, Uwe Warnken, Agnes Hotz-Wagenblatt, Markus A. Grohme, Steffen Hengherr, et al. Image obtained from Wikimedia Commons,

Special to the Enterprise


Tardigrades, moss piglets, or water bears, no matter what you call them, all these terms refer to the same animal. First named “little water bears” by Johann August Ephraim Goeze in 1773, because their movement was reminiscent of the large mammal. A few short years later, in 1777, they were renamed tardigrades, meaning “slow-moving” in Latin, and this has become their recognized scientific name.


Tardigrades are tiny. Their average size is around half of a millimeter, with the largest on record being 1.5 millimeters long. Although small, they can be viewed under low magnification on microscopes, making them a fun critter to find for budding scientists. The most common places to find tardigrades are in mosses and lichens. Their round shape and tendency to be found in moss gave them the nickname of “moss piglet”. However, moss is not the only place where tardigrades can be found. They have been found in the coldest parts of the arctic, the steamiest hot springs, the tallest mountains, and the deepest parts of the ocean.


Despite living in such extreme places, tardigrades are not considered ‘extremophiles’ because they are not specifically adapted to those areas but are just able to withstand most any environments. Tardigrades can also withstand extreme dehydration. Their bodies curl up and their bodily processes slow down to a point of almost death. This process is called cryptobiosis and tardigrades can survive decades in this state. Then when they are rehydrated, they are active again in a few minutes as if nothing had happened. Tardigrades have also survived the vacuum and radiation of space.


Tardigrades, moss piglet, or water bears, no matter which name you call these little critters, remember that they may be tiny, but are very tough. Next time you collect some moss or other damp material, check under a microscope, you may just see one of these wonderful creatures.

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