Researchers scouring the mossy coast of Crater Cirque, Victoria Land, stumbled upon a previously undiscovered species of tardigrade within a rare genus that had never been found this far South before. The study has been published in Polar Biology.
Tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, are (adorable) microscopic animals that are known for being pretty damn hard core. They’re extremophilic organisms, meaning that they can thrive in environments that we consider to be extreme. They can tolerate extreme cold (close to absolute zero), heat (up to 150oC), pressure, radiation, dehydration and even survived in the vacuum of space. In sum, they’re pretty badass.
So far, over 1,000 species of tardigrade have been described, but some estimate that the actual number of species may be ten times as many. These tiny animals, which range from 0.5mm to 1.2 mm in size, are found in an incredibly diverse range of environments; from mountain tops to deep within the ocean, glaciers to deserts. They’re remarkably well adapted to pretty much any environment on Earth. Consequently, they are of particular interest to scientists who never cease to be amazed by these resilient little creatures.
Scientists headed by Dr Roberto Guidetti from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia discovered this tiny critter while on a research trip to Victoria Land, Antarctica. It was found in shore mosses of a natural bowl called Crater Cirque. Mosses and lichens often harbor these organisms where they feast on even smaller invertebrates.
When the team brought the specimen into the lab, they discovered it donned various unusual features. Electron microscopy revealed that the organism had teeny little pads behind its claws and curious hair-like projections dotted over the body which had not been observed in other species, to their knowledge.
The researchers then sequenced the organism’s DNA and compared it to other sequences of previously identified tardigrades, which unearthed clues about its evolutionary lineage. By combining this molecular data with the morphological characteristics of the specimen, the team were able to place the organism within the rare genus Mopsechiniscus, naming it Mopsechiniscus franciscae.
Although Mopsechiniscus had been documented in southern regions before, it had never been found in Antarctica. “It doesn’t seem to travel well,” tardigrade specialist Dr Sandra McInnes told Planet Earth. “It’s quite an unusual genus to find a new member of, particularly in Antarctica where there are relatively few good tardigrade habitats.”
The researchers also speculate that the Mopsechiniscus genus is part of a lineage that had its origins in the ancient supercontinent Gondwana which incorporated South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, India, Australia and Antarctica.