A completely new species of tardigrade, also known as a ‘water bear’, has been found in a car park outside a researcher’s flat – and it could survive an apocalypse.
Tardigrades, sometimes called ‘moss piglets’, are microscopic animals with eight legs, a portly body and a circular mouth lined with three rows of teeth. They’re famously hardly, and have been observed in deep seas, hot springs, on top of the Himalayas and under layers of solid ice. They can survive up to 30 years without food or water, endure the vacuum of space, and live in temperatures of up to 150°C. They’re tougher than you, basically.
Called M. shonaicus after the Shōnai region of Japan where it was found, the latest tardigrade was discovered on a clunk of moss growing in a concrete car park, outside the flat of university researcher Kazuharu Arakawa, in Tsuruoka City. Arakawa studies these tiny water bears at Japan’s Keio University, and regularly samples moss around the city.
Working with Daniel Stec and Łukasz Michalczyk of Jagiellonian University in Poland, Arakawa identified 10 species of tardigrade in the moss sample. After breeding the animals in a lab to produce more for analysis, they studied the tardigrade’s physical characteristics using phase contrast microscopes, scanning electron microscopes as well as a DNA study.
In research published in the open access journal PLoS One, they claim to have found a totally new species. Compared to similar species of tardigrade, M. shonaicus has differences around its mouth, organs and leg shape. The biggest difference, however, is with its eggs. The team found that the new species’ eggs included crown-like filaments, which they believe could help the eggs attach to surfaces where they are laid.
(M. shonaicus eggs. Credit: Stec et al, 2018)
These protrusions mean the new species is part of the hufelandi group of tardigrades. While members of this group have been found in areas such as Italy and Germany, the authors of the study say it is the “first original description of the hufelandi group species from Japan”.
Finding a new species adds to our understanding of these indestructible creatures, and in turn increases what we can glean from their biology. Studying how tardigrades survive complete dehydration, for example, could help us to come up with new ways to store vaccines and pharmaceuticals through dehydration rather than freezing conditions.
Because the animals were able to reproduce in the lab, the next step for Arakawa is looking deeper into the sexual reproduction and mating behaviours of these rotund beasties. There’s a thought for the imagination.
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