The Cryptozoologist



Posted on July 12, 2012 at 9:15 PM



Researched, Compiled, Edited and Illustrated

By R. Merrill

Tardigrades (commonly known as water bears or moss piglets) form the phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs. Tardigrades were first described by Johann August Ephraim Goeze in 1773 (kleiner Wasserbär = little water bear). The name Tardigrada means "slow walker" and was given by Lazzaro Spallanzani in 1777. The name water bear comes from the way they walk, reminiscent of a bear's gait. The biggest adults may reach a body length of 1.5 mm, the smallest below 0.1 mm. Freshly hatched larvae may be smaller than 0.05 mm.

[In case you haven't figured out by now, the photo above is somewhat of an exaggeration!]

More than 1,000 species of tardigrades have been described. Tardigrades occur over the entire world, from the high Himalayas (above 6,000 m), to the deep sea (below 4,000 m) and from the polar regions to the equator.

The most convenient place to find tardigrades is on lichens and mosses. Other environments are dunes, beaches, soil, and marine or freshwater sediments, where they may occur quite frequently (up to 25,000 animals per liter). Tardigrades often can be found by soaking a piece of moss in spring water.


Tardigrades are polyextremophiles and are able to survive in extreme environments that would kill almost any other animal. Some can survive temperatures of -273°C (-460 °F) , close to absolute zero, temperatures as high as 151 °C (303 °F), 1,000 times more radiation than other animals such as humans, and almost a decade without water. In September 2007, tardigrades were taken into low Earth orbit on the FOTON-M3 mission and for 10 days were exposed to the vacuum of space. After they were returned to Earth, it was discovered that many of them survived and laid eggs that hatched normally, making these the only animals known to be able to survive the vacuum of space.

Anatomy and Morphology

Tardigrades have barrel-shaped bodies with four pairs of stubby legs. Most range from 0.3 to 0.5 millimeter (0.012 to 0.020 in) in length, although the largest species may reach 1.2 millimeters (0.047 in). The body has four segments (not counting the head), four pairs of legs without joints, and feet with four to eight claws each. The cuticle contains chitin and is molted periodically.

Tardigrades are eutelic, with all adult tardigrades of the same species having the same number of cells. Some tardigrade species have as many as about 40,000 cells in each adult's body, others have far fewer.

The body cavity consists of a haemocoel, but the only place where a true coelom can be found is around the gonad. There are no respiratory organs, with gas exchange able to occur across the whole of the body. Some tardigrades have three tubular glands associated with the rectum; these may be excretory organs similar to the Malpighian tubules of arthropods, although the details remain unclear.

The tubular mouth is armed with stylets, which are used to pierce the plant cells, algae, or small invertebrates on which the tardigrades feed, releasing the body fluids or cell contents. The mouth opens into a triradiate, muscular, sucking pharynx. The stylets are lost when the animal molts, and a new pair secreted from a pair of glands that lie on either side of the mouth. The pharynx connects to a short esophagus, and then an intestine that occupies much of the length of the body and is the main site of digestion. The intestine opens, via a short rectum, to an anus located at the terminal end of the body. Some species only defecate when they molts, leaving the feces behind with the shed cuticle.

The brain includes multiple lobes, and is attached to a large ganglion below the esophagus, from which a double ventral nerve cord runs the length of the body. The cord possesses one ganglion per segment, each of which produces lateral nerve fibres that run into the limbs. Many species possess a pair of rhabdomeric pigment-cup eyes, and there are numerous sensory bristles on the head and body.



Although some species are parthenogenetic, both males and females are usually present, each with a single gonad located above the intestine. Two ducts run from the testis in males, opening through a single pore in front of the anus. In contrast, females have a single duct opening either just above the anus or directly into the rectum, which thus forms a cloaca.

Tardigrades are oviparous, and fertilization is usually external. Mating occurs during the molts with the eggs being laid inside the shed cuticle of the female and then covered with sperm. A few species have internal fertilization, with mating occurring before the female fully sheds her cuticle. In most cases, the eggs are left inside the shed cuticle to develop, but some attach them to the nearby substrate.

The eggs hatch after no more than fourteen days, with the young already possessing their full complement of adult cells. Growth to the adult size therefore occurs by enlargement of the individual cells (hypertrophy), rather than by cell division. Tardigrades live for three to thirty months, and may molt up to twelve times.


Ecology and Life History

Most tardigrades are phytophagous (plant eaters) or bacteriophagous (bacteria eaters), but some are predatory (e.g., Milnesium tardigradum).


Tardigrades are polyextremophiles; scientists have reported their existence in hot springs, on top of the Himalayas, under layers of solid ice and in ocean sediments. Many species can be found in a milder environment like lakes, ponds and meadows, while others can be found in stone walls and roofs. Tardigrades are most common in moist environments, but can stay active wherever they can retain at least some moisture.

Tardigrades are one of the few groups of species that are capable of reversibly suspending their metabolism and going into a state of cryptobiosis. Several species regularly survive in a dehydrated state for nearly ten years. Depending on the environment they may enter this state via anhydrobiosis, cryobiosis, osmobiosis or anoxybiosis. While in this state their metabolism lowers to less than 0.01% of normal and their water content can drop to 1% of normal. Their ability to remain desiccated for such a long period is largely dependent on the high levels of the non-reducing sugar trehalose, which protects their membranes. In this cryptobiotic state the tardigrade is known as a tun.



Tardigrades have been known to withstand the following extremes while in this state:

Temperature - tardigrades can survive being heated for a few minutes to 151 °C (424 K), or being chilled for days at -200 °C (73 K), or for a few minutes at -272 °C (~1 degree above absolute zero).

Pressure - they can withstand the extremely low pressure of a vacuum and also very high pressures, more than 1,200 times atmospheric pressure. It has recently been demonstrated that tardigrades can survive the vacuum of open space and solar radiation combined for at least 10 days. Recent research has revealed that they can also withstand pressure of 6,000 atmospheres, which is nearly six times the pressure of water in the deepest ocean trench.

Dehydration - tardigrades have been shown to survive nearly 120 years in a dry state.

Radiation - tardigrades can withstand median lethal doses of 5,000 Gy (gamma-rays) and 6,200 Gy (heavy ions) in hydrated animals (5 to 10 Gy could be fatal to a human). The only explanation thus far for this ability is that their lowered water state provides fewer reactants for the ionizing radiation. In September 2007, a space launch (Foton-M3) showed that tardigrades can survive the extreme environment of outer space for 10 days. After being rehydrated back on Earth, over 68% of the subjects protected from high-energy UV radiation survived and many of these produced viable embryos, and a handful survived full exposure to solar radiation.

Environmental Toxins - tardigrades can undergo chemobiosis—a cryptobiotic response to high levels of environmental toxins. However, these laboratory results have yet to be verified.


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Reply Justin Santos
6:51 PM on March 13, 2013 
Interesting creature. Never knew such existed! Interesting features! I wonder how big they were in ancient days.
Reply The Cryptozoologist
12:23 AM on March 20, 2013 
Justin Santos says...
Interesting creature. Never knew such existed! Interesting features! I wonder how big they were in ancient days.

Good question Justin! Not really sure if they've found any fossils of water bears. See if I can find out for you!