How To Find Tardigrades

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About Mike Shaw

Mike Shaw can be described as a naturalist in the classical sense. His contribution to Science is a by-product of his love for exploring the natural world. Having participated in a chimpanzee rehabilitation project in West Africa, he later travelled to the Amazon to study paper and pulp production as it relates to deforestation. Travelling to the observatory at Arecibo, he has done contributing research on their S.E.T.I. project. He is the author of books on microscope filters, tardigrades, and educational game books. He also conducted research on the tardigrade population in the state of New Jersey. His scientific paper was published in October 2013.

Comments

  1. What a great article! I’ll have to try your techniques sometime. :)

  2. Thanks, Laura! Keep us posted right here.

    All the best to you!
    Mike

  3. How many can you typically find in a 10mm by 10mm clump of lichen or moss? Are they plentiful or kinda solitary? Thanks for commenting in my open scientific notebook!

    • You are lucky if you find two or three in any sample.

      Typically, I would scrape lichen into a small paper coin envelope. I’d make a suspension in bottled or filtered (Aquafina or Poland Spring) water in a plastic petri dish and let it sit overnight. The next day, I could spend maybe 15 minutes going though the sample under the microscope, and if I found even one tardigrade I would consider myself lucky. Often, however I would find two or three, or some eggs.

      I have had very little luck with moss. It’s got a lot of sand particles to sift through, and moss itself is hard to look through. Like looking through a jungle for a hamster.

      The expression is: Your first tardigrade is the hardest to find.

      Good hunting!
      Mike

  4. Richard Klein on September 8, 2012 at 7:06 pm said:

    Mike
    I hope this story will entertain you. My mother, Isabelle Klein, was a naturalist. For many years she wrote articles for the Explorer Magazine, and before her death wrote another book about her lifelong experiences exploring a piece of land in Northeastern Ohio. When my father passed away in 1981, she went into a “blue funk” or period of depression that I was having trouble coping with from my farm in Fremont County, Wyoming. I finally got on an airplane and flew back to Ohio. We were sitting at her kitchen table, and I asked her if she had ever found a water bear. I cannot remember where I first heard of tardigrades, but I had arrived with several zeroxed copies of articles about water bears. The literature I found in the library (before the Internet) made it sound as though they were easy to find on moss specimens. Mother had never heard of water bears, but the quest to find one on her “Sawdust Tract, Biological Survey Area” became a bit of an obsession. We could not find one while I was with her that week, but within the month I received an excited phone call: she had found what she was looking for. A tiny eight legged creature beneath the lenses of her microscope. I too had spent some time exploring wet bits of moss from the Wind River Mountain wilderness near my home, to no avail. (I will try again using lichens.) The tiny waterbear was the creature that got her interested in life again, and she lived another 28 years just as obsessed with Natural History, as she had the first 62 years.

    I very much enjoyed the You Tube video, and your web site. Thank you for your time and patience.

    Richard Klein
    rklein@wyoming.com

    • Richard –
      Thanks for sharing this heart warming story. In a way there is a beautiful connection to the tardigrade’s ability to go into that dormant state, and come out of it again and thrive. You are blessed, and it’s great that you were able to share in that so deeply.

      All the best to you!

  5. I was helping my son to find tardigrades for his science project…and we found one right away. Made a 4 minute video of it. For being a slow walker, ours moved pretty fast. We have taken a lot more samples from the woods behind his school to look through and so we will be bear hunting for a while. Thanks for introducing us to this!

  6. elia mueller on March 25, 2013 at 11:53 pm said:

    Do you think I can find some in Utah? There are no mossy trees…I want one!

    • Elia –
      Find a tree with yellow lichen. Tardigrades are also found in damp leaf litter in the storm drains of your roof.

      The first one is the hardest to find. After that- easy.
      Good hunting!
      Mike

  7. josiah on March 28, 2013 at 8:43 am said:

    i am looking for one for my science fair project. i don’t have any trees with moss or lichen! we do have leaves but not very many. my dad LOVES tardigrades and would love to find some. what should i do? i do not know what to do. maybe you could tell some other way to find them? well if not i will still scavenge them up. thank you for reading. your bear hunter, Josiah

  8. Really glad I found this information, thanks

  9. Mr Shaw – I am currently building an integrated curriculum that combines the language arts in my book Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus with the science curriculum built by Archbold Biological Station in south-central Florida. Archbold is providing a lot of science material of course. It’s an exciting project in the state of Florida, but we are missing a “How to find your own tardigrade” activity. Since my book features giant tardigrades, I would like to include this lesson/activity. Would you be willing to contribute your wonderful instructions? Of course they will remain attributed to you and I would gladly include links and endorsement to your site and book.
    I hope you are interested. As a fan of tardigrades, I really enjoyed your site and knowledge. In the classrooms that teach Olivia Brophie, the kids (and teachers) go absolutely crazy for the tardigrades, especially after they learn that they are real.
    Thank you!
    Chris

  10. Cole Johnson on July 16, 2013 at 9:11 pm said:

    So mike, could you email me a description of your slide-making process? For permanent slides?

  11. jan jones on August 31, 2013 at 2:02 pm said:

    Hi Mike! I teach grade school and am looking for a cool project for kids. Do you think an 8 year old could find a water bear ? How much magnification is best? Thanks.

  12. duygu Cankaya on October 8, 2013 at 2:14 pm said:

    Hi,
    I am student biology at the osmangazi university in te Turkey.My research project is about to tardigradae.But I can’t information in Turkey.How can I find?I researched in lichen or moss.But I could not find it.Can you help in this regard?İf I can find,how can I tranform preperat?

  13. Do you have any tips on where to find moss? I live in colorado and there is not much moist areas which encourage its growing. Thank you for any help.

    • Alex – You don’t need moss to find a tardigrade. See if you can scrape some lichen off a tree. Plenty of tardigrades in lichen. Ummm.. not an Aspen tree, though, because the bark is too smooth. Lichen is your best bet, and I prefer it over moss.
      Good luck! Keep us all posted!
      Mike

  14. I want to thank you for such informative and wonderful videos! I love tardigrades and get quite a kick out of looking at them. I decided to try to find them myself because I wanted the thrill of seeing one in real life instead of on a computer screen. Thankfully, I found a decent microscope on craigslist (a Dr. office that was closing down was selling it). I got the scope and searched for months in the moss all around the trees in my house with no luck. I was starting to get disappointed that I hadn’t found any. Then as luck would have it, a strong storm came through and I needed to climb on my roof to check for damage. Once on the roof, I noticed there was some moss growing where one portion of roofing met the wall leading up to a higher roof section. I sampled it and found my first tardigrade! It was so exciting. :-)

    I am a grad student and there isn’t really any tardigrade research going on at my university, so my thesis is about soft-bodied algae…..but I will always love the tardigrade. I would eventually LOVE to do a survey similar to your New Jersey survey but for my own state (Ohio). It will probably either have to wait until my thesis is done or be squashed in short road trips between semesters. Until then I’ll just keep watching your videos and reading what I can on the subject.

    Thank you for being an inspiration for researchers who love the adorable tardigrade!

    • Hi Robin –
      Thanks for your comments and interest. Glad you found that tardigrade!
      About the survey – I didn’t just set out and do mine in NJ. I had a sales job, and over a period of five or six years, I collected my site samples.
      So I’d go on a sales call, and be looking for a tree with lichen. Then before or after the sales call, I’d get my sample. So my goal was the whole state, and I knew it would take time. In the meantime there is plenty to do in terms of re-hydrating the sample and checking for tardigrades, then photographing them and so on.
      So once you accept that this will take as long as it takes, and you don’t care, then you can feel okay about it.
      Stay in touch and keep me posted as to what’s going on in your life!
      Mike

  15. A few questions about safety — If you find tardigrades, how long is it safe to observer them before releasing them? Can they just be released into any old lichen-covered tree? Also, is it safer to use an LED light that doesn’t generate heat?

    • WS –
      Thanks for your message!
      You can release tardigrades whenever you are finished observing and photographing them. Keep in mind that they can withstand high temperatures, so you really need not worry about LED light vs. incandescent or halogen. The assumption is that you are going to capture a tardigrade for observation, and if you do what you must quickly and carefully, then you really can not make a mistake or do any wrong.

      Good luck and keep us posted!
      Thanks!
      Mike

  16. Mike,
    I am an amateur astrophotographer living in Southern Ohio.I recently watched the Vice episode featuring you, and found the subject fascinating.I had thought about trying my hand at some micro photography, as a way to expand, as well as a hobby for nights that are cloudy, or simply too cold.I have purchased a microscope, and recently purchased your book on amazon for my kindle.I was wondering if you could direct me to any kind of resource that shows what counties in Ohio that tardigrades have, or have not been located in.Thanks so much for any help you can give me, and thanks for writing a great book about a amazing little creature.
    Sincerely,
    Zachary Maughmer

    • Zachary –
      Thanks for your comment! My guess is that you will find tardigrades in all counties in Ohio. Just seek out a lichen covered tree near where you are, and start there. You are likely to find some.

      Taking pictures through the microscope is great fun, and it will be that much easier for you because you are familiar with the challenges of connecting a camera to a metal tube, and dealing with overexposure due to one bright object on a field of blackness.

      Good luck, and keep us all posted!
      Thanks,
      Mike

  17. Leigh Hamilton on January 16, 2014 at 7:41 pm said:

    I’ve wanted a microscope most of my life, and I finally bought one – – a good one, too! My first project is to find a tardigrade, and today I collected my first moss and lichen samples. They’re in the petrie dishes now. This is an incredible hobby to adopt, and I feel very lucky to have found your website to help me get started. If I find one can I post a photograph of it here? I also have a digital imager that takes videos and will record tardigrades, assuming I find some.

    Do you ever look for other living microscopic animals that are out of the ordinary?
    Regards, Leigh

    • Leigh –
      Glad you found my website. You will most definitely find some tardigrades soon! Have fun with this.

      Well – to answer your second question – most of the animals I find under the microscope are quite out of the ordinary! Not judging, though, because they probably lead very ordinary lives and consider themselves very normal.

      Sure – you can post any pictures or videos you make on my site. Just let me know when you are ready, and I can walk you through the process.

      Keep us posted as to your progress!
      Rgds,
      Mike

  18. alysa jenkins on February 10, 2014 at 7:36 pm said:

    Is the water required to be bottled? or can it be Tap water?

    • Alysa –
      Tap water is fine. Bottled water is better because it has natural minerals in it and is less likely to have chemicals in it. If you filter your tap water before drinking it, then it’s perfectly fine.

      Good luck!
      Mike

  19. Hello Mike. Thanks for the informative writeup. You may find some increased exposure due to the recent Cosmos episode that talked about tardigrades – that’s why I’m here!

    I have a decent compound microscope with imaging capability, but I don’t own a stereo/dissecting ‘scope. I’m considering using my DSLR and a macro zoom lens to detect the bears and then transfer them to a well slide for close inspection under the microscope. I was wondering if you have ever tried such a thing. I was shopping for an inexpensive stereo microscope and came across a 2.0MP USB camera-based “microscope”, which gave me the idea. My camera has much higher resolution than the USB scope, and I’ve taken pictures of human hairs with it that make them look like electrical cables (though with very shallow depth of field).

    Odds on this working? It would save me $80 or so on a low-end stereo scope.

    Unrelated – as a way to burn through money that might otherwise buy food or something silly like that, I occasionally rent a plane and fly to random small airports in my state (NE). So far, there hasn’t been much point besides the joy of flying and jawing about airplanes with the octogenarians that hang around rural community airports, but now I’m thinking I can do a state-wide tardigrade hunt! The only hitch is that there aren’t a whole lot of trees around airports. Leaf litter might be my only source.

    Thanks again.

    • Boidster –
      Thanks for your comments. I, too, have a pilot’s license, and as much fun as it is to fly into small airports – it might be a bit pricey for a tardigrade survey. Unless, of course, you’re stopping for a good burger.

      Your proposed method of spotting using a macro zoom is fine. All you really need to do is get some magnification over a petri dish, and a camera is fine; snap a photo while you’re hovering. Then, yes, use a low power objective on your compound microscope. No need to purchase the stereoscope.

      Good luck and keep me posted!
      Rgds,
      Mike

  20. Well, it worked a treat – we found several tardigrades in our first lichen sample. I collected some bark from trees at the golf course, scraped the yellow lichen into a petri dish and added 1/8″ distilled water. The next night we set up my Sony NEX-6 on a reversible tripod, suspended a fraction of an inch above the water line, with a light shining at the side of the dish.

    At first I was focused on the floating lichen bits and all we saw was a (very tiny) spider. (Needless to say, I forgot about your instructions above to look at the *bottom* of the dish.) I thought I had struck out, but then we noticed blurry movement at the bottom of the water. So I rejiggered the setup a bit and put the focal plane at the bottom layer and voila! Tardigrades! Also a whole bunch of other crawlies and swimmers.

    We got some good HD video of a tardigrade crawling around on a chunk of debris, accompanied by audio of us pointing out all sorts of other critters. I’ll have to dub in some tardigrade-appropriate music. Something with tubas and a slow tempo.

    Next step is to figure out how to catch one of them in an eye-dropper and transfer it into a well slide. I don’t know if there’s any way to get the dropper into the dish while the camera is rolling – the lens is too close to the water. Maybe I just have to suck up stuff from the bottom and check it drop by drop?

    • Joe –
      Wow, Great ! You seem quite the expert now. By all means, you can send a short video clip and I’ll upload it. Better yet is for you to upload a short clip on YouTube, with copyright free music which you can add right on the YouTube site. Then send me the link, and I will embed the video here on my website. Good luck.
      Mike

  21. Huh, yesterday’s reply got ate!

    The camera/macro lens idea worked perfectly. I harvested some yellow lichen from a local golf course (my foursome thought I was crazy) and soaked it overnight in distilled water. The next evening we hooked up the camera to the HDTV and suspended it 1/8″ or so over the water. We saw several tardigrades immediately, and took some HD video of them crawling around.

    Last night we put the petri dish on the microscope stage and it turns out that both the 4x and 10x lens (40x and 100x effective magnification) can focus to the bottom of the water without the lens touching, so we had no problems getting detailed pictures and video of tardigrades (and many other crawlies/swimmers).

    I’m happy to share the videos, if they’re of any use.

    • Well done, Boidster !

      What I like about this is that you incorporated your fun (golf) with a bit of tardigrade hunting. That’s the best way to search for them, and it’s the technique I used for years. Family vacations, day trips with the kids, all of the normal activities had a bit of tardigrade hunting. My family got used to it. Yes, sure, I would like to have a video clip of yours on my website. As I explained below, upload a short clip on YouTube, with copyright free music which you can add right on the YouTube site. I will link to it on my site and give you the credit for it.

      Keep us posted as to your further adventures! Thanks!
      Rgds,
      Mike

  22. Oh, there it is. Sorry for the double-reply.

  23. Elad on May 8, 2014 at 10:10 pm said:

    Hey Mike, this sounds like a great adventure, I live in palm springs which is a desert will I be able to find lichen anywhere in the desert. thanks Mike
    Isasater 9

    • Elad –
      Yes – this will be a challenge. All you can do is find moist places, which will be difficult. Please let us know your results.
      Thanks!
      Mike

  24. Babak Zargarian on May 27, 2014 at 1:23 am said:

    I recently learned about this very interesting little creature and I commend your work! There doesn’t seem to a whole lot of material on them, but that may be due to my cursory research.

    • Babak –
      Thanks for your comment. Yes – there is little published about the tardigrade. That has made it a fun project.
      Rgds,
      Mike