Elephants and great whales impress us with their bulk, but there are smaller critters that are no less impressive.  Here are a few fantastic animals that come in very small packages.

  1. Bears in space:  Here’s an animal so bizarre, so well-armed, so scary looking, if you knew they were in your back yard you would run away screaming – unless you were told they are less than a millionth of a meter in size.  They’re called water bears, or tardigrades.  Take a look at the color electron micrograph of one on the BBC News and imagine your reaction coming across one of these if it were as large as an army tank.  The picture of a water bear egg further down the article looks like an alien spaceship, yet these creatures live in many environments around our world.
    The article said that the Italian Space Agency is studying what makes tardigrades world-class survivors.  They have the ability to shut down operations so completely, they can survive freezing and even the vacuum of outer space with its ionizing radiation.  Called the “hardiest animal on earth,” the water bear can enter a “cryptobiotic state” of dessication that can allow it to survive for months or years, showing “a high resistance to physical and chemical extremes” such as “very low and high temperatures, exposure to high pressure or vacuum, as well as contact with organic solvents and ionizing radiation.”
    The Italian Space Agency would like to apply their secrets to learn how to “protect other organisms, including humans, from the extreme stresses found under space conditions.”  Maybe a water bear spacesuit will become the latest fashion on some future spaceship.
  2. Flatworm regeneration:  Students who have looked at flatworms in biology class have been amused by their tiny triangular heads and cross-eyed look, but they can do something students can’t do: regenerate themselves.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that one of their teams has figured out that the tiny creatures do it with adult stem cells.  They are a long way, though, from figuring out exactly how regeneration works.

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