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  • Sean McLeod

(ESSAY) Slowstepper, by Sean McLeod

Enter into the ~ post-internet nature documentary from outer space vibes ~ of Sean McLeod's sound essay on the tough yet delicate creature that is the tardigrade.


Tardigrades, known colloquially as water bears or moss piglets, are a phylum of eight-legged segmented micro-animals. They were first described by the German zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze in 1773, who called them little water bears.

They have been found everywhere in Earth's biosphere, from mountaintops to the deep sea and mud volcanoes.

When discussing tardigrades—beyond their rolling velvet charm—we taxonomize their appeal by the effort it takes to kill them.

From mountaintops to the deep sea.

Mud volcanoes.

Deep sea.

Mud volcanoes.

A tardigrade can go thirty years without a drink.

They can thrive in the Antarctic, in heats up to 150 degrees Celsius, and the vacuum of space.

Tardigrades live on the Moon.

At around 10pm Glasgow time on April 11th, 2019, the Sea of Serenity questioned its name, as a lunar lander funded by astronomical vanity project the Arch Mission Foundation, crashed on its surface.

West of the Sea of Tranquillity, North of the Sea of Fecundity, you wonder whether astronomers play favourites when naming celestial bodies, or whether the Moon is, by axiom, just a great expanse of chill.

For the former, see Uranus.

For the latter, look at the Moon.

The tardigrades survived the impact in the reinforced casing of the archive disk, alongside what Arch Mission CEO Nova Spivak deemed the human artefacts most worthy of preservation. As a tech millionaire, he selected:

Asimov’s Foundation trilogy,

(almost) the entirety of English language Wikipedia,

and samples of his own DNA.

Deep sea.

Mud volcano.

Deep sea.

Look at the moon.

Aside from reminding you of the fact Grimes needs a divorce, this makes you wonder: by whose bias did they decide which Wikipedia pages to exclude? Did they waste disk space on the entry for tardigrades, or—being big-brained innovators—did they gamble on the idea that, if extra-terrestrial life shows up in the next three decades with a watering can, the little crawling blobs will be self-explanatory?

Many (stupid) people think tardigrades are themselves aliens.

They are now, of course.

Whether they evolved on Earth or were carried to the planet like Superman on some chunk of cosmic rock, tardigrades have no allegiance, borders, no pride in things they have nothing to do with.

Look at the moon.

This makes sense—aquatic tardigrades are much more vulnerable to harsh conditions than their terrestrial cousins. The water is a more stable environment, and the little kicking piglets trawling for algae have no need for all these protective measures till they do.

When tardigrades get comfortable, they die.

Is it worth it, being tough?

Deep sea.

Mud volcano.

Deep sea.

Needs a divorce.

In 2015, at the University of Chicago, Professor Juan Pablo and his team discovered that tardigrades trigger their cryptobiosis with the release of a jelly-like substance, known as Tardigrade Specific Intrinsically Disordered Proteins.

This binds every essential cell-part in their little bodies, then hardens into a previously unknown type of glass.

By their biological ability to opt out of the extreme borders of reality, tardigrades become shards of potential, floating past life.

Imagine the Moon without a view of the Earth, or many lives with the collective value of a computer chip or a millionaire’s cheek swab.

West of the Sea of Tranquillity, North of the Sea of Fecundity.

Deep sea.

Look at the moon.


Image Credit: Tardigradopedia

Text amd Sound: Sean McLeod

Published: 6/4/21


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