By Zahavah Rojer
All across the world, there are invisible immortals. Tardigrades, also known as Water Bears or Moss Piglets, are a phylum of plump, microscopic invertebrates that live pretty much anywhere and everywhere on earth. They eat plants or other microanimals, have four pairs of stubby legs, and can reproduce asexually, sort of like if Winnie-the-Pooh were half a millimeter long and laid eggs. But tardigrades aren’t micro-marvels simply because they’re really cute. What makes tardigrades incredible is their ability to survive the unthinkable.
Most living things have a tendency to die, especially when subjected to extreme stress in their environment, so it would be understandable to doubt the tenacity of an organism whose name literally translates to “slow stepper”. Yet the humble tardigrade has time and again proven itself able to live through more types of torture than a Bop It!™ toy. Extreme temperature? No problem! Dehydration? No worries. The vacuum of outer space? Tardigrades have not only returned alive from such a deadly trip, but have gone on to reproduce afterwards.
Tardigrades’ secret of survival lies in their ability to almost-but-not-quite-die. When faced with a life-threatening situation, Tardigrades enter a “tun” state; they dry out their bodies and slow their metabolism by 99.99%. By doing this, they prevent water inside them from freezing into ice crystals and exploding through their body or boiling and killing their cells. Once returned to normal environmental conditions, tardigrades rehydrate and come back to life, like a tiny, chubby, Frankenstein’s monster.
I first learned about tardigrades over five years ago in a short novella titled “Jellyfish Dreams”. The book was not about tardigrades but their brief description in the book was enough to pique my interest. Sure, it helps that tardigrades are cute and charismatic to begin with, but the more I learned about them, the deeper a connection I felt between myself and these small survivors.
I have struggled with mental health for a large portion of my life, as many people do. The severity of my issues has fluctuated over the years, but at certain times, when the whole world around me felt wrong and cold and pointless, I would consider whether it was even worth it to get through each day. It was during one of those times when I read “Jellyfish Dreams” and was introduced to tardigrades. Looking back on it, I think that the tardigrade was exactly what I needed at that moment. I had found a natural survivor, and it helped me to rethink my own mental situation. If a creature smaller than a pea could withstand the vacuum of space, there was no reason to believe that I couldn’t get through one more day, and then another one, and then another one.
Tardigrades didn’t cure me of mental health challenges. It’s still something that affects me today, and I sometimes think it’s a part of me that I will never really be free from. But just knowing that something as improbable as the tardigrade exists gives me hope to push through each challenging day into the next. And on days when hope isn’t enough, I try and find my own “tun” state. I dry my mind out and wait for things to get better. And so far, every time, they have.
I am thankful to tardigrades for teaching me that strength can come from the smallest of us. I am thankful to them for showing me that it is possible to survive even when the world around you is cold and empty. But most of all, I am thankful to tardigrades for being exactly the way they are and for making the world just a little bit more weird and wonderful.
If you want to learn more about the incredible tardigrade:
- Fox-Skelly, Jasmin. “Tardigrades Return from the Dead.” BBC, BBC, 13 Mar. 2015, www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150313-the-toughest-animals-on-earth.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Tardigrade.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 23 Aug. 2018, www.britannica.com/animal/tardigrade.
- Journey to the Microcosmos. “Tardigrades: Chubby, Misunderstood, & Not Immortal.” YouTube, Jul 29, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kux1j1ccsgg.