Earth's hardiest species likely to survive 'until the Sun dies'

15 July, 2017, 01:09 | Author: Leticia Walters
  • Tiny mini-monsters called tardigrades or 'water bears' will outlive humanity, conquer the Earth and survive until the sun

The tardigrade, also known as a "water bear", "space bear" or "moss piglet", is a micro-animal with eight legs which looks a little like a pig, hippopotamus or bear, and usually lives in moss or lichen.

They can also survive for up to 30 years without food or water, making them a particularly hardy life-form.

The British and USA scientists looked at the likelihood of tardigrades meeting a premature end as a result of extreme cosmic cataclysms such as exploding stars, giant asteroid impacts or gamma ray bursts - incredibly powerful eruptions of energy linked to the formation of black holes.

"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", said Loeb, with the paper published this week in Scientific Reports. Less than 20 known asteroids and dwarf planets, including Vesta and Pluto, would provide enough of a kick to boil off Earth's oceans with their impacts - and none are headed toward Earth anytime soon.

The researchers concluded the chance of a supernova, an exploding star, being big enough to kill all life here within our sun's lifetime was negligible.

"To our surprise, we found that although nearby supernovas or large asteroid impacts would be catastrophic for people, tardigrades could be unaffected", he added.

"Huge numbers of species, or even entire genera may become extinct, but life as a whole will go on", he said.

Dr Rafael Alves Batista, Co-author and Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Physics at Oxford University, said: "Without our technology protecting us, humans are a very sensitive species".

Oxford University boffins said tardigrades, or "water bears", are as "indestructible as it gets on Earth".

In highlighting the resilience of life in general, the research broadens the scope of life beyond Earth, within and outside of this solar system.

"If tardigrades are Earth's most resilient species, who knows what else is out there".

No space rock big enough to cause a complete species annihilation is on a collision course with our planet, the team found. But life that lived below ground or in large bodies of water would be shielded from harm and could survive, including the tardigrade.

Using mathematical modeling, Batista and his collaborators chose to try their best to predict what kinds of horrific disasters could actually wipe out even the gritty tardigrade. There are many more resilient species on Earth. Yes, it might wreck the planet, but an asteroid strike probably wouldn't boil away all the oceans, and so, tardigrades could hang on.

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. "Subtle changes in our environment impact us dramatically", Dr. Batista said.

Prof Abraham Loeb, co-author and chair of the Astronomy department at Harvard University, suggested Mars' history of once having a somewhat-habitable environment means we should be focusing there.

And the tardigrade deemed to be Earth's ultimate survivor.

"There is a third scenario, where life continues around geothermal vents on a rogue planet until capture by a new host system, or the source of heat is extinguished... life could [endure] on a rogue planet long enough for it to be recaptured [into another solar system]."

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