Tardigrades (Water Bears/Moss Piglets): 

These ambling, eight-legged microscopic “bears of the moss” are cute, ubiquitous, all but indestructible and a model organism for education

by William R. Miller

The young woman in my office doorway is inquiring about the summer internship I am offering. What’s a tardigrade? she asks…

Tardigrades, I reply, are microscopic, aquatic animals found just about everywhere on Earth. Terrestrial species live in the interior dampness of moss, lichen, leaf litter and soil; other species are found in fresh or salt water.

They are commonly known as water bears, a name derived from their resemblance to eight-legged pandas. Some call them moss piglets and they have also been compared to pygmy rhinoceroses and armadillos. On seeing them, most people say tardigrades are the cutest invertebrate.

At one time water bears were candidates to be the main model organism for studies of development. That role is now held most prominently by the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, the object of study for the many distinguished researchers following in the trail opened by Nobel Prize laureate Sydney Brenner, who began working on C. elegans in 1974. Water bears offer the same virtues that have made C. elegans so valuable for developmental studies: physiological simplicity, a fast breeding cycle and a precise, highly patterned development plan…

(read more: American Scientist)

images: Eye of Science/Photo Researchers and Dr. David J. Patterson/Photo Researchers. Illustration at bottom by Tom Dunne, adapted from a figure by the author.

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