How To Find Tardigrades

by Mike Shaw

Below is a brief article, however you can now have the book, with 100 pictures and all the details!  Preview it here…

Tardigrade_3d_cover-WEB

See the original article on Xomba

View or Download this article as a pdf file as it was published in Microbe Hunter.

Tardigrades are microscopic creatures that are a maximum of one millimeter in size, but usually are found to be about half that size. These are little creatures that live in moist lichen, moss, or leaf litter.

They are harmless, and cute.  Yes cute. They are often referred to as “Water Bears” because they look like little bears with six puffy legs, and they have claws that look like those a grizzly bear would have. In fact, they have two eyes, a nose and a mouth, kind of like a bear.   So how do you find them, how long do they live, what climates do they live in? Those are some often asked questions.

They can live a hundred years, withstand extreme heat and cold, and you find them everywhere.    They protect themselves by going into a type of hibernation called cryptobiosis. They roll up into a dried little ball, and just stay dormant, with no sign of life whatsoever. Scientists have rehydrated them from a piece of moss in a museum collection that was a hundred years old. They’ve been frozen and defrosted, put under pressure, subjected to very high temperatures, and zapped with X-Rays. They come out alive and well.  Just add water.

They have recently been sent into space. See the YouTube video here.

The easiest place to start is to find some moist lichen, that the yellow fuzzy stuff on a tree in your yard. Lichen grows on the shady side of the tree.  Picture below left.

Yellow lichen on tree

Yellow lichen on tree

Scrape some lichen into a paper bag, an ordinary lunch bag, or perhaps an envelope. Use a sharp knife or fresh single edged razor blade.  Be very careful, and scrape by holding the blade at a 90 degree angle to the lichen. You don’t slice the lichen off the tree, you simply use the edge of the blade to scrape it into your bag or envelope.  The motion is like a sweeping motion, where the sharp end of the blade is like the bristles of a broom.

Scrape the lichen into an envelope, or small paper sack.  I personally use coin envelopes.  They’re tiny, hold plenty of lichen, and I can label and store them easily.  Don’t use plastic bags, because the moisture in there will allow mold to grow, and looking at mold is a different science project. project!  

Fluffier lichen on tree
Fluffier lichen on tree

The best lichen to collect is not that hard crusty kind, shown in the bottom picture.  Sometimes the lichen is greenish yellow, the softer, the better. See the picture on right.   This lichen is fairly good.  It is greenish yellow and soft.

Hard Crusty Lichen

Hard Crusty Lichen

 

Begin by finding a good tree with soft fluff that grows on the dark side of the tree.  Besides trees, you can also find tardigrades in moss.  Go for the soft young moss.  In the below picture, you can see moss in all of its stages of growth, and even some lichen growing with it.  Tardigrades like to hide in fluff, so that’s what to look for.  Simply pull up some clumps of moss and put it in a paper bag.

Moss in all of its stages

Moss in all of its stages

Again, use paper bags, not plastic bags, when collecting moss and lichen, because that allows air to dry out what you have collected.  You do not want mold to grow on your moss or lichen, and that’s what will happen in a plastic bag that is air tight.  So always use paper bags, the kind you get to pack lunch sandwiches in.

You might even find some lichen on a rock or a brick wall, as shown in this picture.  It’s fine.  Tardigrades are sure to be in this lichen.

Lichen on Brick 00056

Lichen on Brick 00056

Next, you will need a clear plastic petri dish, or something like it. You could use a clear plastic container, like the lid from a food container, the top of a little plastic box for cosmetics, a piece of cut of blister packaging that hangs on the rack in the store.

Blister Pack

Blister Pack

Most small products are blister packed, that is packaged in a hard plastic shell backed by the color cardboard product description. Cut out a piece of plastic that will hold about a half inch of water, like a little bowl or water for a hamster.  The “dish,” as we will call it, does not have to be round.

Sprinkle some lichen into it, just a tiny pinch. Remember, this is a microscopic journey, so a pinch is a ton of material under the microscope.   Then add some bottled water, again, just about half in inch. Set aside, and let the lichen soak over night.  Ideally, you could use plastic petri dishes, as you can cover these to prevent dust and mold spores from getting into the water.  In the picture here, you can see that I have set up two petri dishes, one with moss and one with lichen. When you add the water and let it sit, it is called a “suspension.”

Petri Dish Suspensions of Lichen (left) and Moss (right)

Petri Dish Suspensions of Lichen (left) and Moss (right)

You will need a microscope. A dissecting microscope is best, but there are some very good amateur microscopes available at reasonable prices. Sometimes called a binocular stereo scope, it will open up a whole new world to you.  Here is the one I use, which I purchased second hand for under $100.00 on E-Bay.  This is a very high quality Bausch & Lomb dissecting microscope, however you don’t need anything so fancy.

Dissecting Microscope

Dissecting Microscope with fiber optic illuminator and cable on left. Tardigrade suspension on the base.

Nowadays, you get fairly good optical quality for your money spent. You can get one from a few places on line at The Microscope Store similiar to the one shown below in the picture.  The nice thing is that you do not need high power to see and observe tardigrades.

Looking for tardigrades through an inexpensive dissecting microscope

Looking for tardigrades through an inexpensive dissecting microscope

Your lowest magnification will be perfect, as only 15 to 30 times magnification is all you need to find a tardigrade.   Also, check out what I have in my Microscope Store.

In fact, higher powers make it more difficult to search through the jungle of lichen you have created.   When ready to examine the specimen under the microscope you need to place a piece of black paper under your clear dish or container. Place that on the microscope stage.  In the below picture, you see a petri dish with light from the side.  Somehow, you will have to mount or set up a narrow beam of light, from a flashlight or even a high intensity desk lamp. Shoot the beam across the bottom of specimen dish.

Petri Dish with Fiber Optic Light

Petri Dish with Fiber Optic Light

In other words, you do not illuminate the lichen from underneath, like you would if you were examining a glass microscope slide. No. You will have to illuminate the lichen suspension from the side. A horizontal beam makes any tardigrades or other creatures now appearing in your specimen dish glow white, and they will stand out clearly.

Now you have to focus the microscope, at lowest power, on the debris that rests on the bottom of the dish. If you try to use a higher power objective lens, you will wind up with it under water. You do not want that to happen, or you will ruin the optics. So, use the lowest power objective, and that will give you what’s called a good working distance, or separation from the lens to the surface of the slide.

Want to do a science fair project on tardigrades?
Get my book here

Tardigrade_3d_cover-WEBant to do a science water. 

Once you have focused on the bottom of the dish, and the light is streaming sideways across brightly illuminating the lichen, you can methodically examine the specimen. You are hunting for bears.   These are slow moving creatures, which is why they have been named tardi-grades, or slow-walkers. What does a tardigrade look like?

Tardigrade from West Orange, NJ

Tardigrade from West Orange, NJ

If you google search, you will see many examples.  Your google search would probably lead you to my website with loads of pictures showing the various types of tardigrades found in my New Jersey Tardigrade Survey: www.tardigrade.us

Looking in your petri dish, don’t be discouraged if you don’t find any at first. Sometimes, they can take two or three days to emerge from their hibernation. Sometimes you have to look in another sample of lichen or in a sample of moss or lichen. Eventually, you will find one.

Looking for tardigrades

Looking for tardigrades

There is a saying that the first tardigrade you ever find is the hardest to find.   Good hunting.

If you have any questions, be sure to post them at the bottom of this page!  Your suggestions are welcome too!

Happy Hunting!

Mike Shaw

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. Twice travelling to the observatory at Arecibo, he has done contributing research on their S.E.T.I. project. He is the author of How to Make Rheinberg Filters, for the Hobbyist or Professional, and How To Find Tardigrades. His most recent project has been a comprehensive survey of 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

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