Meet one of the Pinelands’ smallest residents: the tardigrade

Macroscopic organisms live beneath our feet

The Pine Barrens is home to tiny creatures called tardigrades, which live on moss, soil and more. This image of a tardigrade was collected by Steven Schulze, a researcher at the Rutgers University Pinelands Field Station in Browns Mills (Steven Schulze/Special to The Sun).

On a walk through the Pine Barrens, you can expect to see flora and fauna like birds, frogs and more. But, just below your feet is a world of macroscopic organisms rarely seen with the naked eye. Tardigrades, often called water bears  for their pudgy frame and teeny claws, are one of the Pinelands’ smallest residents. 

“They’re just kind of charismatic organisms,” said Steven Schulze, a researcher from Tabernacle who studies tardigrades. “You can find a lot of articles about them in popular culture, but there’s a very small group worldwide that studies them in any dedicated way.”

Much of what has been written about tardigrades is focused on their longevity. Many species can survive extreme temperatures and conditions by going into a hibernation-like state for long periods of time and seemingly “come back to life.” One study sent tardigrades to space, and many returned alive and healthy.

“I’ve killed plenty of tardigrades though,” Schulze said with a laugh. Despite  supposed superpowers, the organism’s life can end with an accidental touch of the finger.

Schulze is less interested in tardigrades’ indestructibility than on creating building blocks, so future scientists can use learn why exactly the creatures exist. 

“If tardigrades were removed from Earth, I don’t know what would happen,” he explained. “That’s the million dollar question.”

Schulze, now a lecturer in biology at Rutgers-Camden, wants to create a large-scale survey of tardigrades in the Pine Barrens and beyond. He’s already studied the microorganisms in Maryland and at Barnegat Lighthouse on Long Beach Island as part of his master’s thesis.

Schulze believes tardigrades can be found just about anywhere.

“They are what would be considered a cosmopolitan group,” he explained. 

Schulze wants his research to be that of a taxonomist, a scientist who studies and logs different species worldwide.

“Traditional naturalism and observational studies are waning in favor of DNA or molecular approaches,” he noted. “I don’t want that to be lost.”

Ready to meet a tardigrade? With a low-powered microscope and a sample, anyone can view the creatures. Schulze recommends taking a piece of moss from the side of a building or untraveled path, to avoid seeing squished tardigrades. The organisms are water activated, so adding a drop of water to the slide can help animate them.

After dropping moss on a slide, illuminate a workspace — tardigrades are transparent — and start searching for a fumbling monster like creature. 

According to Schulze, while observing tardigrades through a microscope, one can see them forage for food. What they’ve eaten that day will appear in their see-through stomachs, or they can be seen attacking other tardigrades. Schulze recommends taking note of how the organisms move, using their back legs as an anchor and wiggling side to side.

Allison Fink, a student who worked with Schulze on his research, said it can be interesting to identify different species of tardigrades. They are most easily differentiated by the number of claws they have, though accessing a species guide can be helpful.

Different tardigrades live in different habitats, so Fink recommended taking samples from Pine Barrens moss, from sand on a beach, or any other area visited to see the most diversity.

“They’re almost like the Pokemon of the macroscopic world,” Fink noted of tardigrades. “Without a microscope, there’s still a chance to see tardigrades in the wild. They’re roughly half a millimeter long, so in the right lighting, tardigrades may appear as tiny white dots to an observer.”

“It’s my overarching goal as a biologist to make science more accessible to the lay person,” Schulze said. “Tardigrades are a very good vehicle to accomplish that.”