This is as far a fossil as they come.
A long time ago, a small animal found its end in a sticky web of tree resin. Sixteen million years later, that tiny tardigrade fossil was discovered in Dominican amber. It’s a science personality thing now. Talk about a glow.
The fossil tardigrade is notable for its rarity and for being a new species and a new species.
Tardigrades are known as “water bears” because of their appearance when viewed under a microscope () they are almost invulnerable, capable of being exposed to space and (up to one level).
While the fossilized micro-beast looked like a modern tardigrade from the outside, the researchers were also able to examine its interiors. “Of the currently known and formally named tardigrade amber fossils (three so far, including this Dominican amber fossil), this is the first fossil in which we were able to visualize its internal structure (i.e. anterograde),” said doctoral candidate Mark Maplow told me, at Harvard University. Maplow is lead author of a paper on the discovery published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The tardigrade was so different from known specimens that it earned its own genus and named Paradoriforibius chronocaribius.
“The discovery of fossil tardigrades is truly a once-in-a-generation event,” co-author Phil Barden said Tuesday in a statement from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Barden’s lab found the fossil.
Finding a juvenile tardigrade half a millimeter long in ancient amber is no easy feat. “At first I thought it was an artifact in the amber—a crack or fissure that happened to look like a tardigrade,” Barden said. The little claws tipped him off as to what he really was.
Humans can buy tardigrade plush toys, tardigrade-emblazoned T-shirts, and even tardigrade jewelry. “As microorganisms they live on a scale that is difficult to understand, yet they have these strange little legs and distinctive furry faces that somehow seem familiar, like the bears that are sometimes named,” says Barden. he said.
While there are still more tardigrade fossils to be found in other amber specimens, this remains a challenging mission. “You can spend the rest of your life checking through amber and never finding one,” Barden said. He considers this discovery to be “luck slow enough for a career”.
Maplow hopes the discovery will encourage researchers to take care and keep their eyes open for the critters when studying amber. Fossil animals can tell us how tardigrades have changed over time. There is much left to learn about these mighty water bears, both ancient and modern.