The Crown of Creation (?)

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Here’s my current suggestion for the coolest animal (hint: it is not us, either despite of, or maybe because of, our awesome and dangerous brains and opposable thumbs):

TARDIGRADA

Sounds impressive! Actually, despite sounding like the name of some hard-core conquering emperor, it means ‘slow step’ in Latin.

Less impressively, it is also known as the water bear.

But it is WAY more impressive than any marauding horde.

There’s a great chapter about them in the book “Animal Earth, the amazing diversity of living creatures.” I like this book; while limiting itself to animals (not plants, say, or bacteria, etc.) it has examples of all the major groups, and so despite our brain chauvinism, vertebrates are barely mentioned.

At 0.003 to 0.08 inches you can barely see it without magnification. They live in both marine and fresh water. These can be extreme environments and collections of water as thin as the layer of water on moss or on  “lichen encrusting a headstone.” There’s some likely in your immediate vicinity right now. Some are “herbivorous” eating plants and algal cells, others are predatory on small animals like nematodes (ubiquitous small worms). In marine waters they tend to reproduce sexually. In fresh waters, some are hermaphrodites and others can reproduce by parthenogenesis, meaning mother’s eggs just start doing their thing, no need for sperm. So, for those water bears there is no need for males.

But here’s the coolest part:

They undergo “cryptobiosis,” described as a kind of “death-like suspended animation.” The dehydrate over less than an hour and become what is called a “tun.” They use glycerol and a trehalose, a simple sugar to replace water molecules. The tun can tolerate:

Temperatures approaching absolute zero (much colder, it says, than liquid nitrogen)

Temperatures up to 120 centigrade or 250 degrees Fahrenheit (they can live in hot springs without being in this living dead condition)

“Huge doses of radiation”

A “hard vacuum”

Up to 600 atmospheres of pressure.

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So, you think global warming is a threat to life on earth? Think again. Of course rats and roaches wont care either if our coastal cities are under water, our economies dive, millions starve from lack of water from loss of run off from major mountain ranges and destroyed habitats and ecosystems.

We will take down  ourselves, and a large percent of species on earth if we continue living as we have, but many will survive.

Earth has put up with more than we can dish out, and life has survived massive extinctions before (the book “The Sixth Extinction” will teach you about that, as will any good history of life on earth or a trip to a good natural history museum.)

This extinction is unique in that it is the first massive extinction done knowingly, out of pure greed and willful stupidity and self-deception, so some call it the Anthropocene (Latin for people fucked it up. Well, not exactly; it means the people’s period. Power to the people!).

So I worry less about earth or even life on earth than I shake my head at our arrogance and hurt for our kids and grandkids. Species come and go. Biology, evolution, is not romantic or sentimental. Life on earth  has the urge to survive, to grow and develop, to evolve, but it is not unidirectionally goal directed. We are. Let’s not fool ourselves. Our concerns about the environment are basically about us. Earth just finds us wordy apes petty, rude and annoying, not existentially threatening. In a few millions of years even our most toxic remnants will be dissolved, dissipated, and metamorphosed (OK some will take a few tens, or even hundreds, of  millions of years, but earth has deep time).

We’re not water bears; we’re not that cool. We are just an evolutionary experiment—fragile bodies with overblown, overly self-important, big wordy brains. Is there a chance that we will look up from our devices, our efficiencies, our clinging and our lusts, with our attention spans less than goldfishes, to see past our encrusted defense outer and inner mechanisms, be brave, and do the right thing? Judging from the popularity of certain republicans who thrive on greed, ignorance, fear and hate right now, I am not convinced. Judging from the reaction to them of many, to the wisdom of some I know and read and hear about, I am allowing myself some tiny sliver of hope.

Zen impartiality or not, I’d like my grandkids not to live in a seething hell of destroyed civilizations and ecosystems.

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