A preflight light micrograph of a typical terrestrial tardigrade of the Milnesium genus seen at 40X magnification.

(Boothby Lab/NASA)

Suppose we told you someone could tolerate the boiling temperatures of the hottest springs, the freezing and tremendous pressures of the Mariana Trench, endure dehydration for around 100 years, and brush aside massive amounts of ionising radiation without as much as breaking a sweat. In that case, you’d think we’d be referring to some comic superhero. But all of these feats belong to an organism that’s present on Earth — the tardigrade!

Tardigrades, or Water Bears, are marvellous creatures present just about everywhere on this planet. Specific species are specially adapted to extreme conditions that would kill most other organisms. And now, scientists have discovered an entirely new tardigrade species that are acclimated to the ancient sand dunes from previous ice ages in Finland!

Researchers found this species living among lichen and moss in a dune forest in Rokua National Park, whose delicate environment has been shaped by years of glaciers and wind movement. While this sounds like an exquisite holiday destination, it’s highly unlikely that their stubby limbs allowed them to book a cab here.

Considering these newly found tardigrades had even stubbier appendages and a more streamlined shape for crawling through soil or sand, they decided to aptly name the species Macrobiotus naginae — a reference to Nagini, a snake character from the Harry Potter books.

“Formerly a cursed woman who is ultimately and irreversibly transformed into a limbless beast, this fictional character provides a fitting name for the new species in the pseudohufelandi complex, which in turn is characterised by reduced legs and claws,” the scientists explain.

Normally, these water bears allow the whims of nature (such as wind) to carry them to new locations since the movement of such microscopic organisms can be very time-consuming. However, these tiny creatures may have used a mode and manner of public transport that we didn’t know about previously: piggybacking off snails!

When researchers combed through some wild snail poop from a Finnish garden, they came across ten tardigrades, out of which five were still alive.

When further experiments were run, they found that ingestion and excretion by snails can be a viable method of travel by the tardigrades, wherein they just hitch the world’s slowest taxis (and deadliest, considering only 31% of the tardigrades survived) to venture into lands previously unknown.

While the tardigrades may not have a say in where their accidental slimy Ubers might take them, snails prefer the same humid and mossy habitats that our tiny friends do. This means there’s a good chance they will end up somewhere hospitable — provided they don’t die in the process. Therefore, if “I’m here for a good time, not a long time” had an ambassador, it would clearly be the tardigrade.


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