Tue. May 17th, 2022

Although it turned out to be difficult to spot, the researchers managed to find an insane tardigrade trapped inside a clump of Dominican amber. The unprecedented discovery of an ancient tardigrade sheds new light on this remarkably durable group of microscopic animals.

About 16 million years ago, a single flock of woody resin managed to capture a fragment from a flower, three ants and a beetle. It is an impressive feature, but more remarkably, the resin has also captured an idiosyncratic tardigrade. The resulting part of amber is only the third known tardigrade fossil and the first tardigrade fossil from Cenozoic, the current era that began 66 million years ago with the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs.

The fossil was found at La Cumbre in the Dominican Republic, an area known for its abundant yellow deposits. Researchers from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Harvard University had already studied the amber piece for several months before discovering the half-millimeter-long critter tucked away in a corner. In a press release, senior author Phil Barden described it as a “once in a generation” discovery. Details of the find can now be found in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Artistic depiction of tardigrade in moss.  (Image: Holly Sullivan (Harvard / NJIT))Artistic depiction of tardigrade in moss. (Image: Holly Sullivan (Harvard / NJIT))

Tardigrades are among the toughest creatures on earth. The eight-legged invertebrates are known to pull away the effects of extreme dehydration, bitter cold temperatures and harmful radiation. They can survive being shot out of a gun (to a point), and their walking skills compete with creatures 500,000 times their size. Tardigrades, also known as water bears and bog pigs, are ancient organisms that appeared about 500 million years ago and survived no less than five mass extinctions. Very few animals on Earth can require such an impressive summary.

“What’s so remarkable is that tardigrades are a ubiquitous ancient genus that has seen it all on Earth, from the fall of dinosaurs to the rise in land colonization of plants,” Barden said. “Yet they are like a ghost line to paleontologists with almost no fossil record. Finding any fossil remains of tardigrades is an exciting moment where we can empirically see their evolution through Earth’s history. ”

Analysis of the fossil revealed some different physical characteristics that justified the declaration of a new species and genus. Tardigrade has been named Paradoryphoribius chronocaribbeus, which mixes “chrono”, the Greek word for time and “caribbeus” for the area where the fossil was found. The specimen is a relative of the modern living tardigrade superfamily Isohypsibioidea, according to research.

Scientists say this is the best-depicted fossil tardigrade yet. The team was able to see some very fine details, including internal structures, mouth parts, and needle-like claws dozens of times finer than human hair.

For the first time ever, researchers succeeded in visualizing “the inner anatomy of the course of a tardigrade fossil and found combinations of characters in this specimen that we do not see in living organisms now,” Marc Mapalo, lead author of the paper and a graduate student at the Harvard Institute for Organic and Evolutionary Biology, said in the press release. “Not only does this allow us to place this tardigrade in a new genus, but we can now study evolutionary changes that this group of organisms experienced over millions of years.”

Barden said they are still “scratching the surface” when it comes to understanding the evolutionary history of tardigrades. This is a rare find, but the discovery shows that researchers should look very closely at even the smallest spots when studying amber fossils.

More: The strangest amber fossils ever discovered.

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