Earth's last survivors are going to be water bears


Long after humans on the planet have been wiped out, "water bears", a tiny, eight-legged animal officially called a tardigrade, will persist, the researchers decided. Scientists have known for some time that tardigrades are almost impossible to kill - although they dwell in water, they can be without it for 30 years - but research published Friday in Scientific Reports takes that notion a step further: The species will live through every disaster until the sun itself explodes.

They are equally happy in the deep sea and the frozen vacuum of space.

Tardigrades emerged as the toughest, most resilient form of life on earth by proving they can survive for 30 years without food or water and live at 150 degrees Celsius.

Scientists scored the survival of the species over three rounds of tests which simulated a large asteroid impact, a blast from an exploding supernova star and a gamma ray burst, which is a big explosion thought to be caused by a star collapsing.

This finding, published July 14 in Scientific Reports, suggests that complex life can be extremely hard to destroy, which bodes well for anyone hoping Earthlings have cosmic company.

"There are only a dozen known asteroids and dwarf planets with enough mass to boil the oceans, these include Vesta and Pluto, however none of these objects will intersect the Earth's orbit and pose a threat to tardigrades", Professor Loeb and co-authors said.

Researchers say there is a chance that a supernova, an exploding star, could be big enough to wipe out life on Earth within our sun's lifetime and this event is negligible. "Huge numbers of species, or even entire genera, may become extinct, but life as a whole will go on".

"Tardigrades are as close to indestructible as it gets on Earth, but it is possible that there are other resilient species examples elsewhere in the universe", Dr. Rafael Alves Batista, a physicist at Oxford University involved in the research, said in a statement.

More than being just a thought experiment, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo, these simulations can help show what kinds of places could theoretically sustain life in other parts of the Solar System. "If Tardigrades are earth's most resilient species, who knows what else is out there", said Batista. Since then more than 3,000 planets have been found outside our solar system, and it's thought that around 20% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-like planet in their habitable zones.

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Tardigrades live in water, but are capable of drying out completely when faced with extreme conditions.

Scientists found only one way the tardigrades could be killed off - if our oceans boil away and we are left without any water.

"Subtle changes in our environment impact us dramatically".

We wanted to consider what cataclysmic events might be able to finally kill off the hardy tardigrade.

Supernovae or gamma-ray bursts, electromagnetic explosions that happen in other galaxies, could deplete the Earth's protective ozone layer which protects us from radiation.

Gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful explosions in the universe, are jets of radiation likely released when a star collapses into a black hole after emitting an ultra-powerful supernova blast. "The history of Mars indicates that it once had an atmosphere that could have supported life, albeit under extreme conditions". The subsurface oceans that are believed to exist on Europa and Enceladus, would have conditions similar to the deep oceans of Earth where tardigrades are found, volcanic vents providing heat in an environment devoid of light.

Batista and a team set out to determine what kind of a catastrophe would be required to wipe Earth clear of all life.

"The discovery of extremophiles in such locations would be a significant step forward in bracketing the range of conditions for life to exist on planets around other stars".

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