Why are tardigrades, those chubby little water bears, nearly indestructible?

Microscopic image of a tardigrade.
Diane Nelson, a tardigrade researcher who works in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, used a scanning microscope to take this 3-D image of a tardigrade. (Image credit: NPS/Diane Nelson)

Tardigrades, often called water bears or moss piglets, are near-microscopic aquatic animals with plump, segmented bodies and flattened heads. They have eight legs, each tipped with four to eight claws or digits, and somewhat resemble the hookah-smoking caterpillar from "Alice in Wonderland." Though tardigrades are disarmingly cute, they are also nearly indestructible and can even survive in outer space.

Tardigrades were discovered in 1773 by the German zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze, who dubbed them "little water bear." Three years later, Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani named the group "Tardigrada," or "slow stepper," for their toddling gait, according to the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College (opens in new tab) (SERC). There are currently about 1,300 known tardigrade species within the Tardigrada phylum (a classification category) according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (opens in new tab) (ITIS), a resource for species names and classifications created by a partnership of U.S. federal agencies.

What makes tardigrades so indestructible?

Water bears have an unusual strategy for surviving harsh conditions: They enter an almost death-like state called cryptobiosis, expelling more than 95% of the water from their bodies, retracting their heads and legs and curling into a dehydrated tun. 

By the 1970s, scientists determined that different forms of cryptobiosis in tardigrades could be caused by four environmental triggers: desiccation, freezing, lack of oxygen and excess salt, reported a 2020 study published in the journal Scientific Reports (opens in new tab).

During cryptobiosis, a tardigrade's metabolic activity drops to as little as 0.01% of normal levels. Its cells are protected from damage by water-soluble proteins that are unique to tardigrades, known as tardigrade disordered proteins, or TDPs. When tardigrades expel their body's water, TDP molecules form a tough, glasslike cocoon around cells. This keeps cellular material safe while the tardigrade is a tun and enables it to reanimate in water when conditions are more hospitable, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Molecular Cell (opens in new tab)

How big are tardigrades?

Water bears can range from 0.002 to 0.05 inches (0.05 to 1.2 millimeters) long, but they usually don't get any bigger than 0.04 inches (1 mm) long, according to the World Tardigrada Database (opens in new tab).

A tardigrade's body typically consists of only 1,000 cells, according to an article published in the journal Arthropod Structure and Development (opens in new tab) in 2019. In comparison, the human body is made up of many trillions of cells.

Where do tardigrades live?

As their name implies, water bears live just about anywhere there's liquid water, inhabiting the ocean, freshwater lakes and rivers, and the water film that coats terrestrial mosses and lichens. They can survive a wide range of environments: from altitudes of over 19,600 feet (6,000 meters) in the Himalayan mountain range to ocean depths more than 15,000 feet (4,700 m) below the surface, according to the University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web (opens in new tab) (ADW).

Related: Tardigrades probably see in black and white 

Not all tardigrades live in extreme environments, but water bears are known for surviving extreme conditions that would kill most other forms of life, by transforming into a dehydrated ball known as a tun. 

Researchers have found that tardigrades in a tun state can withstand temperatures as low as minus 328 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 200 degrees Celsius) and hotter than 300 degrees F (148.9 C), Smithsonian magazine (opens in new tab) reported. They can also survive exposure to radiation, boiling liquids, and up to six times the pressure of the deepest part of the ocean, according to the Science Education Resource Center (opens in new tab) at Carleton College in Minnesota. 

A 2008 study published in the journal Current Biology (opens in new tab) revealed that some species of tardigrades — when dehydrated — could weather a 10-day trip into low-Earth orbit, and return to Earth unharmed by solar ultraviolet radiation and the vacuum of space. 

Tardigrade under a microscope

Tardigrades can be seen clearly under a microscope. (Image credit: Getty)

More recently, desiccated tardigrades have been shot from a high-speed gun, traveling nearly 3,000 feet per second (900 meters per second) and surviving a crushing impact of about 1.14 gigapascals of pressure. 

Their survival hinted at the possibility that several thousands of tun-state tardigrades that were carried on the Israeli lunar mission Beresheet may have survived after the lander crashed on the moon, on April 11, 2019. 

What do tardigrades eat?

Most tardigrades suck fluids from cells in plants, algae and fungus, puncturing cell walls with needlelike stylets in their mouths and hoovering up the liquid inside. 

However, some species can consume entire living organisms, such as rotifers, nematodes and even other tardigrades, according to Illinois Wesleyan University's Species Distribution Project (opens in new tab) (SDP).

How do tardigrades reproduce?

Reproduction in tardigrades may be sexual or asexual, depending on the species. For egg-layers, females produce up to 30 eggs at a time, and eggs may be fertilized either inside the female's body; in her shed cuticle after the male ejaculates his sperm there; or while attached to sand or substrate, according to ADW. Other tardigrade species are self-fertilizing hermaphrodites that reproduce through parthenogenesis — a process in which an embryo develops without external fertilization. 

Embryos typically are fully developed within 14 days of fertilization, though their development can last up to 90 days depending on environmental conditions such as dryness and temperature, according to ADW. Young tardigrades do not have a larval stage and resemble miniature adults upon hatching, though they usually have fewer claws and spines than fully-grown water bears do. The youngsters grow in several stages by molting their external cuticle "skin," and each molt can take five to ten days to complete.

Tardigrade anatomy illustration

This illustration depicts the tardigrade's long gut (grey) and ovary above (yellow). (Image credit: Getty)

Anatomy of a water bear

Inside the tardigrade's tiny body, you won't find any bones, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (opens in new tab) in August 2021. Instead, they are supported by a hydrostatic skeleton. This is a fluid-filled compartment called a hemolymph. Similarly to human blood, the hemolymph is filled with nutrients. 

Although they lack a spinal cord, tardigrades have a ventral nervous system, according to the book Forest Canopies (opens in new tab), published in 2004. This sends signals between the tardigrade's brain and body and is the functional equivalent of a vertebrate's spinal cord. 

Water bears have a complete digestive system, but no circulatory or respiratory system. Instead, oxygen from the water enters their bodies through their cuticle walls. To aid circulation, they have muscles which contract to transport the nutrients in their hydrostatic skeleton.

Tardigrade taxonomy

Kingdom: Animalia 

Subkingdom: Bilateria 

Infrakingdom: Protostomia 

Superphylum: Ecdysozoa 

Phylum: Tardigrada

Source: ITIS

Tardigrade tuns can be revived even after decades have passed. In 2016, scientists revived two tuns and a tardigrade egg that had been in cryptobiosis for more than 30 years, Live Science previously reported. Reanimation from even longer tun states might be possible. In 1948, a researcher in Italy purportedly revived a tun from a dried-out piece of moss that was over 120 years old, the BBC (opens in new tab) reported in 2015. However, no other researcher has since reanimated a tardigrade from a tun that old, according to the BBC.

And in some tardigrades, fluorescence could lend them protection against radiation by transforming UV rays into harmless blue light, Live Science previously reported

Tardigrade colored SEM

This is a colored SEM image of the underside of a tardigrade. (Image credit: Getty)

Are tardigrades endangered?

Tardigrades have not been evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global organization that monitors conservation status for animals and natural habitats; and they aren't on any other endangered list. In fact, tardigrades have survived all five mass extinctions on Earth since the group evolved about half a billion years ago, according to the University of Wisconsin Madison (opens in new tab), and water bears could survive after humanity is long gone, researchers found.

Related: The 5 mass extinction events that shaped the history of Earth 

In 2017, scientists from Harvard and Oxford universities looked at the probabilities of certain astronomical events — Earth-pummeling asteroids, neighboring supernova blasts and gamma ray bursts, to name a few — that could take place over the next several billion years. Then, they evaluated the likelihood of those events wiping out Earth's hardiest species. While such disasters would likely eradicate humans, the researchers found that little tardigrades would survive most cosmic cataclysms, they reported in their study published in the journal Scientific Reports (opens in new tab).

"To our surprise, we found that although nearby supernovas or large asteroid impacts would be catastrophic for people, tardigrades could be unaffected," David Sloan, a co-author of the study and a researcher at Oxford, said in a statement (opens in new tab).

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Live Science Contributor
Alina Bradford is a contributing writer for Live Science. Over the past 16 years, Alina has covered everything from Ebola to androids while writing health, science and tech articles for major publications. She has multiple health, safety and lifesaving certifications from Oklahoma State University. Alina's goal in life is to try as many experiences as possible. To date, she has been a volunteer firefighter, a dispatcher, substitute teacher, artist, janitor, children's book author, pizza maker, event coordinator and much more.