Water Bears: The Smallest & Toughest Animals in Appalachia

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PHOTO: Water Bear, courtesy of Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden, UNC Chapel Hill
PHOTO: Water Bear, courtesy of Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden, UNC Chapel Hill

One of the most populous animals in Appalachia is probably one you’ve never seen with your naked eyes.  Known to scientists around the globe as “tardigrades”, these microscopic creatures are known in these parts simply as “water bears”.

Ranging in size from .25 mm to 1.5 mm, water bears are a little smaller than a period that goes at the end of a sentence and are just barely out of the range of human sight for most people — allowing them to be easily spotted through the lenses of an inexpensive microscope with 15x or 30x magnification.

Though subspecies of tardigrades may be found in both the Arctic region and hot springs, as well as on top of the Himalayas (20,000 ft. above sea level) and in the deep sea (13,000 ft. below sea level), the Appalachian region presents an opportunity for these microscopic creatures to thrive, thanks to its many damp and mossy forests.

As the name suggests, water bears (who obtained their name due to their walk being reminiscent of a bear’s gait) enjoy water and can easily be found in damp areas — especially in forest moss.

In addition to being extraordinarily tiny, the 8-legged aquatic and microscopic creatures are also one of the toughest creatures on the planet, being able to survive temperatures ranging from -328 °F to 304 °F.

The creatures can also survive a lack of oxygen for days, possibly months and live without water for decades, as well as withstand X-ray radiation 1,000 times the lethal human dose. They may even be one of the few living animals that can survive unprotected in space.

Best of all, these creatures can be found in your own backyard:

Simply find dried moss that may have collected along a wooden fencepost or other object and place into paper bag.  Next drop the dried moss into a saucer filled with water.  This will cause any water bears that may have found a home in the dried moss to come alive and begin swimming in the water (this process may take a few hours).  Next, place a sample of the water (1-3 drops) into a microscope slide and begin searching for the creature.  Best of luck!

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