cryptobiotic

Tardigrades—microscopic eight-legged animals that resemble plump piglets in puffer coats—have been charming and astonishing biologists since they were first discovered in the 1770s. Tardigrades are phenomenally successful organisms, having first appeared more than 600 million years ago. Though they’re common in moderate climes, terrestrial tardigrades are also one of the few animals that thrive in spots that are particularly inhospitable to life, such as Antarctica’s McMurdo Valleys, thought to be the driest and coldest desert on Earth.

To eke out a living in the mosses of Antarctica, and even in more mild places where their habitats are very vulnerable to sudden water loss, tardigrades have evolved a remarkable ability. When conditions turn life-threatening—whether from rapid drying, extreme dips in temperature, or spikes in salinity—they seem to defy death by imitating it. They temporarily wind down their metabolism in a reversible process called cryptobiosis—literally, hidden life.

There’s still much to be learned about the mechanisms by which tardigrades become cryptobiotic when faced with different stressors. The dramatic change they undergo in response to lack of water—anhydrobiosis, first described by Spallanzini in 1776—is still the best understood.

First, the animal curls into itself, tucking its eight limbs and head inside its body. It sheds more than 95 percent of the water in its body, shriveling into a blob, known as a tun for its resemblance to a beer barrel. In the process, the tardigrade produces a sugar that replaces the lost water, protecting internal structures from fatal damage. Metabolic processes dwindle to less than 0.01 percent of normal activity as the animal waits for conditions to improve. Just add water, and these “barrels” transform back into active “bears.”

Tardigrades star in the exhibition, Life at the Limits: Stories of Amazing Species, now open at the Museum. 

10

Utah’s National Parks

Island in the Sky: Canyonlands  

My first glimpse of this epic canyon was from the visitors center with a parking lot full of foreign tourists. Across the street was the edge of the Canyonlands, a barren wasteland full of millions of years of erosion and insane rock formations. When I walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down I saw this rinky-dink road that winded all the way down the canyons and trailed off into the distance. I wanted to lean over the edge and take a picture of the bottom of the canyons, but my extreme fear of heights kept me 3 feet from the edge at all time. A wonderful South Dakotan couple told me they would hold my hand if I wanted to lean over and take my picture. I grabbed the husband’s hand and scooched over the edge, snapping my picture. I put my life in another person’s hands, quite literally, and thank God they didn’t drop me. But I knew they weren’t going to drop me (on purpose at least) because South Dakotans are the nicest people. Life Fact: you can always trust a South Dakotan. 

The sketchy road I mentioned above was our destination: the 3-day camping trip’s itinerary was a 100 mile loop called the White Rim Trail. Our adventure started with seat-clenching switchbacks, 20 minutes of pure agony and that “Jesus, take the wheel” feeling.  Once on the lower level of the canyon, I was fully surrounded by a prehistoric landscape. What wasn’t a dirt road was cryptobiotic crust, cacti, or canyons. No matter how far down we traveled, the road seemed to descend even further. Scott and I are serious campers, but nothing could prepare us for this. 

The strange thing about Utah is that you can go from gorgeous Swiss-looking mountains to the surface of Mars within 2 hours of driving. For the majority of our stay, we were with Scott’s parents in a beautiful little valley, but for these three days our eyes feasted on unbelievable views only seen in one specific part of the world. It was like a scene out of Mad Max: Fury Road, clay dust kicked up from underneath the tires like a ball of fire and every inch of our bodies were stained red from the sun or dirt. During the entire trip I only saw about 5 species of animals. I was lucky enough to spot a Desert Bighorn Sheep on my first day - there is a population of 600 sheep in a 100 million acre radius. 

Scott and I pitched camp in a dried up flash-flood pool. There was sand at the bottom and it made the perfect nook for our tent. After an exciting day of vastly views and basking in the sun, we put our chairs at the edge of the canyon to watch the sunset. The amber glow of the sky highlighted every ridge of the canyons for miles on end. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Next thing I knew, Scott had got up from his chair and leaned in close to me on one knee. “Will you marry me?” We both jumped up and hugged, with tears in our eyes, kissing each other and telling each other how much we loved each other. My answer was “yes, absolutely.” I will never forget that day, that view, that moment, or that song - At Last by Etta James, that played gently in the background. Just thinking about it now makes me teary-eyed. I love Scott so much and his six months of planning definitely showed. 

Capitol Reef National Park

Now I know nothing else I say can top that proposal story, but I want to talk about the other parks we visited. I love ancient history, so seeing the petroglyphs in Capitol Reef was the highlight of this visit.  The rock art figures were created by ancient Native Americans around 600 AD. I may sound crazy when I say this, but my first reaction to the petroglyphs was the confirmation of the existence of aliens. There are some serious robot/demon  silhouettes going on on that rock face. Just think about it - if you were a primitive being and saw an extraterrestrial, wouldn’t you chip it’s profile into a rock? Makes sense to me. Life Fact: aliens exist. 

Before Capitol Reef was recognized as a National Park, it originally served as a uranium mine. There are dozens of small cave-like entrances that are boarded off with radiation signs. How amazing would it be to be able to go inside and explore one? I wonder what types of creepy things are left over inside the uranium mines. 

After a day of driving around Capitol Reef and three very long days of not showering (I know, Scott proposed to a stinky, hairy girl - he really loves me!) we got a hotel right outside of the park. The ranch-style abode had about 25 beautiful horses grazing around with a beautiful backdrop of the canyons. The speckled pony was beautiful! If only we had more time, I would have loved to go on a horseback ride around the canyons. 

Arches National Park

Our last destination was Arches. The beautiful landscape is filled with giant rock formations that were carved out by oceans many years ago. Still standing today are gargantuan arches. Can you imagine when it snows in Utah, all of these canyons and arches are covered in snow? At night, the stars fill up the sky and the entire constellation is visible, the smoky outline of the arches in the distance. I made Scott take some pictures of me standing underneath one of the arches and I looked like a tiny ant. It is amazing how these structures have stood the test of time. Unfortunately due to weather and wind erosion these arches may not stand tall for much longer, but I assume that won’t be for another thousands of years. 

My trip to Utah was absolutely unforgettable. Words can’t describe the amount of beauty, nature and breathtaking landscapes I saw. The White Rim Trail was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I am so happy Scott made it even more memorable. During a special anniversary date, we definitely need to make a trip back to that spot! Maybe we should drag our friends and family out there and renew our vows :) Thank you everyone for the engagement wishes and thank you for dealing with this excessively long post! 

As always,

Taylor

Tardigrades—microscopic eight-legged animals that resemble plump piglets in puffer coats—have been charming and astonishing biologists since they were first discovered in the 1770s. Now they’re starring, as 10-foot models, no less, in the Museum’s new exhibition Life at the Limits.

Zoologist Johann Goeze first dubbed the tiny aquatic animal he saw lumbering around on clawed legs “kleiner Wasserbär”—German for little water bear. A few years later, Italian naturalist Lazzarro Spallanzini named them slow steppers (tardi grada)—and provided the first description of the amazing transformation tardigrades undergo when under environmental stress.

Tardigrades are phenomenally successful organisms, having first appeared more than 600 million years ago. More than 1,000 species can be found all over the world, in sea and fresh water, as well as on land, where they cling to moist moss or lichens. Though they’re common in moderate climes, terrestrial tardigrades are also one of the few animals that thrive in spots that are particularly inhospitable to life, such as Antarctica’s McMurdo Valleys, thought to be the driest and coldest desert on Earth.

To eke out a living in the mosses of Antarctica, and even in more mild places where their habitats are very vulnerable to sudden water loss, tardigrades have evolved a remarkable ability. When conditions turn life-threatening—whether from rapid drying, extreme dips in temperature, or spikes in salinity—they seem to defy death by imitating it. They temporarily wind down their metabolism in a reversible process called cryptobiosis—literally, hidden life.

There’s still much to be learned about the mechanisms by which tardigrades become cryptobiotic when faced with different stressors. The dramatic change they undergo in response to lack of water—anhydrobiosis, first described by Spallanzini in 1776—is still the best understood.

First, the animal curls into itself, tucking its eight limbs and head inside its body. It sheds more than 95 percent of the water in its body, shriveling into a blob, known as a tun for its resemblance to a beer barrel. In the process, the tardigrade produces a sugar that replaces the lost water, protecting internal structures from fatal damage. Metabolic processes dwindle to less than 0.01 percent of normal activity as the animal waits for conditions to improve. Just add water, and these “barrels” transform back into active “bears.”

Learn more on the Museum blog.