Long, long time ago, a small animal met its end in a sticky trap of wood resin. Sixteen million years later, the small tardigrade fossil was discovered in Dominican amber. It’s now something of a science celebrity. Talk about a glow.
The fossil tardigrade is remarkable for its rarity and for being a new species and a new genus.
Tardigrades are known as “water bears” because of their appearance when viewed under a microscope (). They are almost invincible, able to survive exposure to space and (to a point).
While the fossil micro-animal resembled a modern tardigrade on the outside, scientists were also able to study its interior. “Of all the currently known and formally named tardigrade amber fossils (three so far, including this Dominican amber fossil), this is the first fossil where we were able to visualize its internal structure (ie foregut),” Marc Mapalo, a doctoral student at Harvard University, told me. Mapalo is the lead author of a paper on the find found this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Tardigrade was so different from known specimens that it got its own genus and the name Paradoryphoribius chronocaribbeus.
“The discovery of a fossil tardigrade is truly a one-time event,” co-author Phil Barden said in a New Jersey Institute of Technology statement Tuesday. Barden’s laboratory found the fossil.
It is not easy to spot a teenage tardigrade that is half a millimeter long in old amber. “At first I thought it was an artifact in amber- a crack or crack that just looked like a tardigrade,” Barden said. The tiny claws tipped him to what it really was.
People can buy tardigrade plush toys, tardigrade-emblazoned T-shirts and even tardigrade jewelry. “Like microorganisms, they live on a scale that is difficult to understand, yet they have these funny little legs and conspicuously cute faces that somehow seem familiar, just like the bears they are sometimes named after,” he said. Barden.
Although more tardigrade fossils can still be found in other amber samples, it is a challenging mission. “You can spend the rest of your life screening through amber and never finding one,” Barden said. He considers the discovery to be “enough tardigrade luck for a career.”
Mapalo hopes the finding will encourage researchers to be careful when studying amber and keep their eyes peeled for the critical. The petrified animals can tell us about how tardigrades have changed over time. There is much left to learn about these mighty water bears, both ancient and modern.