No eyes, eight claws, a body shape somewhere between an overstuffed couch and Jabba the Hutt. Microscopic tardigrades may be far from many common conceptions of “cute,” but there’s a surprising amount to love about “moss piglets” or “water bears,” as they’re sometimes charmingly called. When the going gets tough, tardigrades hunker down, suspend their metabolisms, and spend up to five years off-duty: an inspiration to anyone who’s ever needed an afternoon nap. They’re incredibly hardy, but spend all their lives waddling around and sucking on moss. And if tardigrades are the post-apocalyptic future of Earth, well—there are worse creatures we could leave to care for the planet. And now, thanks to the efforts of scientists’ work in Japan, we’ve got a whole new species of them to appreciate.
We may never know how long Macrobiotus shonaicus had been minding its own business on a clump of moss in a concrete parking lot in Tsuruoka-City, Japan. Members of a research team led by Daniel Stec from Jagiellonian University in Poland took a sample of the moss, and found 10 specimens of the brand new tardigrade—the 168th known species in Japan. The research was published yesterday in the open access journal PLoS One.
To the untrained eye, one tardigrade looks much like another. M. shonaicus, however, has a few key points of difference—an extra bulge on its internal “legs” and an atypical solid surface to its eggs. Like two other recently discovered tardigrade species, the eggs have flexible filaments on top. That commonality, scientists say in the paper, may suggest a common ancestor for these three species as well as two other similar members of the group.