Did you ever learn about Rasputin in history class? He was a Russian political figure who was assassinated, but he didn’t go down easily.
He didn’t die until he’d endured enough poison to kill five men, four gunshots through the chest, and a good clubbing. Then they threw him into a freezing lake, just to be sure he wouldn’t survive.
Well, meet the adorable little creature called the tardigrade, or water bear. Up close, it looks like someone inflated a weird khaki jumpsuit and glued claws and a nozzle on it, and it’s kinda cute in a Michelin-man sort of way.
It’s essentially the Rasputin of the microscopic world, but only much much tougher. How tough?
You can boil it, and it won’t die. You can freeze it. You can throw it in a nuclear reactor. You can put it at the bottom of the ocean, where the pressure would turn any human inside-out in a millisecond. You can even hurl it into the middle of space, and it’ll just keep floating along, content to live without gravity or oxygen or carbon–you know, the essentials of life for every other living thing on Earth.
The water bear (which has next to nothing in common with a regular bear) can essentially tell its body to just sorta take a break for a while if it finds itself in danger. It’s called cryptobiosis, and the water bear will semi-literally become a husk of its former self, losing 97 percent of the water in its body.
Wait, is it still a water bear at that point?
It can just set its body on hibernate mode in any situation and stay that way for over a decade. Then, they simply wake back up as if nothing had happened the second it touches water again, and go on to live an enriching life of sucking nutrients out of algae.
The strange thing about this is that water bears evolved the ability to survive these extreme situations, like pressures six times greater than those found at the bottom of the deepest ocean or temperatures colder than anyone has ever experienced on Earth. But it doesn’t need to.
Most water bears are content to just hang around run-of-the-mill dirt mounds and suck moisture from anything they can get their stylet (that weird nozzle that functions as a mouth) on.
The water bear isn’t the most well-understood critter in the world, but scientists are fascinated by its bizarre genetics and abilities. With the recent discovery that they could be bred in labs, studying them will become much easier. And if we can understand just what makes the tough little guys tick, there’s no telling what we might discover.
For now, I’m content to just look at this picture of two water bears tickling their buddy as he rolls around on the ground.