Fact or Fiction: Tardigrades

Charlie Nadler dispels the myths about tardigrades, a microscopic water-dwelling animal.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

1. Tardigrades can survive extreme conditions that would kill any other animal known to man.

Fact. Tardigrades are able to withstand 5,000 gamma rays of radiation, temperatures from 304 °F to near absolute zero, and ten years without water. Furthermore, they are able to live and reproduce in the vacuum of outer space, and they can hibernate indefinitely. Because of their excessive adaptability, tardigrades welcome the prospect of nuclear apocalypse, a return to Ice Age, or any other doomsday scenario in which they will be handed the opportunity to float around and explore space while all other life on Earth perishes.


Illustration by Hallie Bateman

2. Tardigrades are sometimes called “water bears” because bears are their closest living relatives.

Fiction. The name “water bear” comes from the way the tardigrade walks — which resembles the gait of a bear, but the similarities end there. The bear is a simple animal; he enjoys fishing, knocking down the front doors of cabins, and surprise entrances. He’s been known to partake in the occasional mauling, but at least you can respect what he stands for. He’s a bear; mauling is part of his rich culture! What is a water bear’s culture? Does he even have any? Why is he constantly judging us? Perhaps we could get some answers if we could look into his eyes, but you need a microscope to even see him at all because he’s tiny. And stupid.


Illustration by Hallie Bateman3. Tardigrades are cute.

Fiction. Tardigrades are not cute; they’re short and overweight, with poorly articulated limbs and claws on their feet. Their bodies are covered in cuticles of proteins, chitin and lipids (gross), and the males only have one gonad.


Illustration by Hallie Bateman4. Tardigrades feed on plants and bacteria.

Fact. The majority of tardigrades subsist on plant matter and bacteria, although some species will occasionally eat entire organisms, such as rotifers.


Illustration by Hallie Bateman5. Tardigrades are harmless.

Fiction. While most of us will probably never be personally assaulted by a tardigrade, this does not mean that they are harmless. In fact, their very existence is deeply detrimental to our mental health. We understand that there’s virtually no escape from these water bears; they’re hiding beneath the ice in the Arctic Ocean, at the top of the Himalayas, in our backyards, and everywhere in between. Even if we can’t see them, we can feel their presence and sense that they are awaiting our demise. Their silence is deafening.

As humans, we struggle to cope with this dark reality; the long, sinister shadow cast by tardigrades shapes our identities and prevents us from forming “healthy relationships” with other people. We often find ourselves unable to sleep, our minds victims of the night as they become caught in infinite water bear thought-loops. In our moments of weakness, we can’t help but wonder: What if there was a pill or an elixir we could take that would transform us from human to tardigrade? Would we consider taking such a thing? Perhaps, if we did take it, we would realize that we have in fact been living a lie; that, all along, we were actually tardigrades trapped in human bodies. Once corrected to our true form, we would command respect from our fellow tardigrades and be elected to a prestigious position with much responsibility. The important work we’d accomplish would earn admiration from our peers and maybe even the love of a beautiful female water bear with whom we could settle down and start a family. Our parents would finally see that we aren’t the disappointments they always thought we were. For the first time in our lives, we’d feel accepted, appreciated, and loved.


Illustrations by Hallie Bateman

Charlie Nadler lives and works in Los Angeles. He probably has a Twitter and blog.