P.E.I. beaches full of tardigrades, and that's a good thing

Next time you're digging your toes in the famous sand of a P.E.I. beach, here's something to think about.

It's crawling with mysterious creatures, strange invertebrates that not that much is known about, called tardigrades.

But don't worry. They probably don't bite, and if they did, it wouldn't hurt.

"They are very small, about a tenth of a millimetre to a millimetre, and they look like an eight-legged bear," says Emma Perry, a marine biologist from Unity College in Maine.

'We're really surrounded by them'

Perry has been studying tardigrades for years, and told Island Morning's Matt Rainnie these tough little creatures aren't just beach fans.

"They're everywhere. In land, in fresh water, and in the ocean. They live in leaf litter, in moss, and lichen, even in desert," she said. "We're really surrounded by them."

"They can survive almost anything, they've been up into space, they have survived extreme heat, extreme cold, as well as extreme radiation and the vacuum of space."

Perry has been studying tardigrades on P.E.I. beaches because the east coast of Canada is one of the spots where so far, no research has been done.

They're here

She did an initial pilot study last summer, and will be back again this year to do more.

"You definitely have marine tardigrades, that's the biggest finding," she said.

It's all to help figure out their mysteries, including what makes them so durable.

"That is the $64 million question, but we are beginning to get insights," said Perry. "They appear to be able to pull their legs in and their head in, and form a little barrel-shape. And in that state they shut down their metabolism almost completely. So it's as if, if you think of the sci-fi space shows, they can go into stasis."

The research keeps coming up with new insights.

"We are just finding they make lots of sugar, which is like anti-freeze," Perry said. "That protects their bodies. And then they've just found this last summer, that they make a special protein that wraps around their DNA to help protect it from damage."

Probably helpful

It's a good thing they are so small, because they'd be pretty invincible at a larger size.

It does look like they are here for good, not evil, according to Perry.

"They are part of a group of species that together do a significant portion of the nutrient recycling," she said. "They're a really important part of the ecosystem."

Perry will be back in June to collect more tardigrades, but she is also returning on Tuesday, March 7, for a presentation on the results of her preliminary work on P.E.I.

It will be at the Carriage House at the Beaconsfield Historic House.

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