Tardigrades, commonly called water bears, are aquatic invertebrate animals that live in the moisture trapped by their habitat, often mosses and lichens. At only half a millimeter in length they are famous for their ability to survive environmental extremes and recently became the first multi-celled animal to survive exposure to outer space. Through a new Citizen Science program at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, you can add to the scientific knowledge of this incredible creature!
Instructions are simple: collect three moss or lichen samples from your (or a neighbor’s) backyard. You can even collect fresh garden foliage, such as spinach, lettuce or other organic items that accumulate droplets of water. Place them in a baggie or envelope and bring them to the Biodiversity Lab on the second floor of the Nature Research Center — the Museum’s new wing — between 9am and noon on Tuesday, August 6 or Wednesday, August 7. Technicians will be available to process your samples and extract, count and indentify any tardigrades. You may even win a prize.
While little is known about their requirements for life on Earth, water bears can be used as an efficient bio-indicator of habitat quality and global environmental change. And according to Dr. Meg Lowman, Senior Scientist for the Museum and coordinator of the project, “A water bear hunt is guaranteed to expand the known distribution and diversity of tardigrades for North Carolina, and we just might discover a new species. At the very least, we will have a new model Citizen Science activity with a real possibility of publishable data.”
Additionally, a group of undergraduate students from across the country have been working with Lowman during the summer to define the taxonomy and distribution of tardigrades in tree canopies as part of a larger NSF-funded research project. These students will present their research findings in a series of short talks in the Daily Planet theater, also located in the Nature Research Center, on Thursday, August 8 at 1pm and again at 5pm. People interested in learning how to take their own tree-top tardigrade samples can join Lowman at Prairie Ridge Ecostation, the Museum’s outdoor educational facility in west Raleigh, on Friday, August 9 between 10am and 4pm. No climbing experience necessary; subject to weather. [Directions available at naturalsciences.org/visitor-info/directions-parking#prairie]
Photos of tardigrades found by the undergraduates on the Baker University campus, Baldwin Kansas
Photos courtesy of William Miller