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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Greene: The Meek Shall Inherit

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Everyone says cockroaches and rats, both known for their astonishing adaptability and resilience to human attempts to wipe them out, could survive any eco-disaster. But there are some animals out there whose ability to adapt could put them to shame.
 

Tromping to the top of our wooded hill one winter day, I noticed hundreds of little specks on the otherwise pristine snow. I bent down and examined them more closely, very grateful for the excuse to stop and gasp for breath. The specks were not ash or dirt. They were alive and they were hopping. They looked like fleas.

I was dismayed - to be followed into the pristine snowscape by the bane of every pet owner was unsettling. Then I wondered if fleas could be inheriting the earth so soon. So I consulted an entomologist friend who identified these creatures as snow fleas, Hypogastrura nivicola. They’re actually in the springtail family, and they’re not fleas at all.

Springtails not only can leap around acrobatically on top of the snow, they contain a glycine-rich protein that acts as an antifreeze, so they thrive in cold temperatures. This protein prevents the formation of ice crystals in living tissue. The applications of glycine to human problems are many, from better storage of donor organs to creating smoother ice cream. The only problem is that the protein in springtails breaks down readily at higher temperatures. So even though they do brilliantly in ice, fire would be another matter.    

But there’s another candidate: the tardigrade, otherwise known as the water bear or moss piglet. These are eight legged microscopic animals that live in water, all across the planet, from 12,000 feet below sea level to altitudes of 20,000 feet; from the poles to the equator. Ranging from a hefty 1.5 millimeters on down to one tenth of a millimeter, they look like badly upholstered, rather cute sofas, and have the gait of a bear, hence at least one of their names. And... they’re incredibly interesting.

They can withstand temperatures as cold as minus 450 degrees F, all the way up to 300 degrees F. They can survive one thousand times the radiation humans can and can go a decade without water. In fact, tardigrades were taken into orbit on the FOTON M3 mission in 2007, which researched microgravity in the earth’s orbit. For ten days these tenacious creatures experienced the vacuum of space. Upon returning to earth, many of the survivors laid eggs which hatched normally.

We humans tend to lord it over other animals. Catching them, chopping them up, even flinging them into space has yielded a lot of information with applications to improving human life. We’ve been relentless in our animal studies - from taxonomy to taxidermy. But we must broaden our vision to embrace a common good for all creatures, because - ironically enough - human life cannot be saved in isolation.Everyone says cockroaches and rats, both known for their astonishing adaptability and resilience to human attempts to wipe them out, could survive any eco-disaster. But there are some animals out there whose ability to adapt could put them to shame.

Tromping to the top of our wooded hill one winter day, I noticed hundreds of little specks on the otherwise pristine snow. I bent down and examined them more closely, very grateful for the excuse to stop and gasp for breath. The specks were not ash or dirt. They were alive and they were hopping. They looked like fleas.

I was dismayed - to be followed into the pristine snowscape by the bane of every pet owner was unsettling. Then I wondered if fleas could be inheriting the earth so soon. So I consulted an entomologist friend who identified these creatures as snow fleas, Hypogastrura nivicola. They’re actually in the springtail family, and they’re not fleas at all.

Springtails not only can leap around acrobatically on top of the snow, they contain a glycine-rich protein that acts as an antifreeze, so they thrive in cold temperatures. This protein prevents the formation of ice crystals in living tissue. The applications of glycine to human problems are many, from better storage of donor organs to creating smoother ice cream. The only problem is that the protein in springtails breaks down readily at higher temperatures. So even though they do brilliantly in ice, fire would be another matter.    

But there’s another candidate: the tardigrade, otherwise known as the water bear or moss piglet. These are eight legged microscopic animals that live in water, all across the planet, from 12,000 feet below sea level to altitudes of 20,000 feet; from the poles to the equator. Ranging from a hefty 1.5 millimeters on down to one tenth of a millimeter, they look like badly upholstered, rather cute sofas, and have the gait of a bear, hence at least one of their names. And... they’re incredibly interesting.

They can withstand temperatures as cold as minus 450 degrees F, all the way up to 300 degrees F. They can survive one thousand times the radiation humans can and can go a decade without water. In fact, tardigrades were taken into orbit on the FOTON M3 mission in 2007, which researched microgravity in the earth’s orbit. For ten days these tenacious creatures experienced the vacuum of space. Upon returning to earth, many of the survivors laid eggs which hatched normally.

We humans tend to lord it over other animals. Catching them, chopping them up, even flinging them into space has yielded a lot of information with applications to improving human life. We’ve been relentless in our animal studies - from taxonomy to taxidermy. But we must broaden our vision to embrace a common good for all creatures, because - ironically enough - human life cannot be saved in isolation.