New Species of Tardigrade Discovered in Kansas by Baker University Students

Madeline Clark, Reporter

Baker University discovered a new species of tardigrades in July 2019. Tardigrades are microorganisms that live all over the world in moss, lichen, algae, rocks, and aquatic habitats such as streams. There are up to 1,300 species of tardigrades in the world. Tardigrades, otherwise known as “water bears” have a unique structure. They are composed of a well-defined head and four body segments. Their legs have claws that give them their bear-like structure. These microorganisms can withstand unimaginable conditions, like below freezing temperatures and above boiling temperatures, volcanos, radioactive areas, the bottom of the ocean, and even the vacuum of space. They are known as the most resilient animals on earth. In an article interviewing Dr. William R. “Randy” Miller (Director of research in biology and chemistry at Baker University), Miller discusses tardigrades.

 “The tardigrade is a biologically fantastic creature about which we know very little,” Dr. Miller said. “It lacks a circulatory system, respiratory system, and skeletal system, three of the major systems animals have. It has eight legs, but they come from different segments when in most animals, legs come from one segment. They can desiccate, suspend their own metabolism, and survive almost anywhere. And that’s just the kind that lives on land.”

Baker University undergraduate students discovered the new species named Tardigrades living in Northeast Kansas. Funded by the NFS (National Foundation of Science), Baker students went on to discover many more species, specifically at the Baker Wetlands. In 2007, Baker was funded with a $600,000 grant to research tardigrades for the next four years. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that students discovered the new species. In an article covering the undergraduate student’s discovery students discuss the scientific research conducted on the tardigrades. 

“They thrive in aquatic habitats and are known for a stage of suspended life; when conditions become dry, they shrivel into a state known as cryptobiosis,” Dr. Miller said. “Once it rains and conditions become moist again, tardigrades reconstitute and continue with life. Cryptobiotic tardigrades are thought to be nearly indestructible and are able to survive extreme environmental conditions such as temperatures of -200º Celsius, absolute zero, 150º Celsius, vacuums, and 6,000 PSI pressure. Thought to be one of the first legged animals to emerge from the sea, survivors of the last five extinctions on earth, tardigrades were the first multiple-celled animals to survive exposure to actual space, return to earth alive, and continue to live.”

Some species of tardigrades did not evolve on Earth but arrived from space. The research on why they are here and precisely what they are continues. However, tardigrades impose no threat to humans, and tardigrades that spread disease have yet to be found.