February 9

Tiny ‘water bears, moss piglets’ abound in Maine forests

Unity College is one of the few places across the country advancing the study of tardigrades, micro-animals capable of survival in outer space.

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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TARDIGRADES: Professor Emma Creaser peers through a microscope at a tardigrade Thursday while in her office as Ben Sawtelle, 19, watches at Unity College.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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TARDIGRADES: This tardigrade, seen Thursday at Unity College, is equipped with an armor shell and green tint from its herbivore diet.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below

“I saw this thing crawling around and didn’t know what it was. It was really hard to identify because our biology books didn’t include tardigrades,” she said.

Munton volunteers her time to work on the tardigrade research for no credit, but Creaser also teaches a class in invertebrate marine biology in which the creatures are studied. She has a small group of students who are working on the research outside of class.

She has to limit the number of students who can participate because the laboratory has only so many slides and a limited amount of equipment, although enthusiasm for the project is high.

Ben Sawtelle, 19, a freshman, said he hopes to work on the research for as long as the opportunity is available.

“It’s a real-world experience. We don’t know what the next step will be, and that’s the exciting part. Before we can design an experiment, we have to know what we are studying, and that’s what we’re doing now,” said Sawtelle, as he scraped a lichen off a tree and put it into a paper bag on a recent outing.

Sawtelle, who is among the small group of students working on the research with Creaser, doesn’t just collect samples on campus. He also is involved in helping procure them from sites around the state, including faraway places such as Caribou, where he has an aunt who sends him samples of moss and lichen to test.

Tardigrades can be collected almost anywhere and can survive in a paper bag for days before they are brought to the laboratory. They require water for life, but without water they are capable of preserving their bodies by entering into a state of cryptobiosis, in which they store sugars.

This process allows tardigrades to survive some of the harshest conditions, including temperatures ranging from 301 degrees F to negative 458 degrees F for short periods of time, irradiation, extreme pressure and lack of food or water.

The study of tardigrades is important for a few reasons. In general, the lower an organism is on the food web, the more essential it is in maintaining a stable ecosystem, Creaser said. That means that tardigrades and other micro-organisms play essential roles, even though we may not be sure yet of the extent of what they do.

“When we lose a predator, we tend to care because they’re quite visible, but life can go on quite happily without them. It’s the little things — the decayers and the recyclers — that are much more important,” Creaser said.

Tardigrades are also distributed via the wind, so their movement is linked to climate change and can help us understand environmental patterns, she said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368rohm@centralmaine.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

TARDIGRADES: Professor Emma Creaser points to a microscope monitor showing a tardigrade shedding its skin with two eggs under a microscope Thursday at Unity College. The tardigrade naturally leaves the eggs behind in the skin to be hatched.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

TARDIGRADES: Ben Sawtelle, 19, a freshman at Unity College, logs a sample of lichen and moss he gathered on Thursday from a dead tree in the Unity College forest. Sawtelle, a marine biology major, is researching tardigrades, also known as “water bears” because of their ability to survive underwater. They are one of the smallest animals known to humans.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

TARDIGRADES: Ben Sawtelle, 19, a freshman at Unity College, scrapes samples of moss and lichens from a dead tree in search of tardigrades Thursday in the Unity College forest.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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