I was first introduced to these cute microorganisms in the Smoky Mountains in NC by my friend, Susan Sachs, who happens to be a ranger and educator in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were studying lichen as a habitat. We collected some lichen off of trees and rocks and brought it inside to soak in water. We mixed the lichen and water around and then strained the lichen out.
We took a drop of that water and placed it on a slide that we put under microscopes. Little tiny animals were zooming around in the water. As we moved the slide around, we were delighted by all the things that live in the lichen. Then, someone noticed a slower moving, larger animal that looked like it had little claws. What was this new thing?!
Susan put the slide under a microscope that was hooked up to a monitor, so we could all observe this interesting organism. She told us that these charasmatic creatures are called waterbears, because of their resemblence to black bears (which the Smokies are known for). Their scientific name is tardigrade meaning slow mover. Compared to the other microorganisms, they did move quite slowly.
A professor in NC and his students discovered waterbears in recent times and had found at least 75 different species at that time. Since that time, they have been amazed at the special abilities waterbears exhibit. They have been able to survive in the most extreme enviroments, similar to their hosts, lichens. Lichens are able to dry up and just be until water comes along. When that happens, they can quickly start photosynthesizing again.
Waterbears have to withstand these long, dry periods too or die. They do this by becoming much like a raisin. It is called the tung state. They can stay in a tung state for decades. Because of this, they have been able to survive boiling water, freezing, outspace, and long dry periods. They are not only cute, but also incredible survivors!