KFS at large: Amsterdam’s creatures great and small

I’ve got a bit of a thing for tardigrades.

So much so that last month I crossed water for a chance to see them in the flesh. My destination? Amsterdam.

Amsterdam’s a pretty good day out for science fans – it has NEMO Science Center, a five-floored fun house of hands-on discovery and nerdy entertainment (including one of the biggest Rube Goldberg machines since that OK Go video), and the Artis Royal Zoo, which boasts its own aquarium and planetarium.

It’s a fine zoo, one of Europe’s oldest, and its open plan means you often see different species just hanging out together, like these guys:

artis horned beasts

But that’s not why I was here. Next door to Artis sits Micropia, an interactive museum dedicated to the tiny creatures that live around us, on us, in us, that we never get to see.

Micropia invites you to play microbiologist for the day, setting up dozens of exhibits about the many different kinds of organisms we spend our lives with, each with its own microscope and slides you can manipulate to see the littl’uns in action.

They even helpfully give you this very satisfying punch card, which lets you stamp off the tiny beasts you see as you make your way around to create your own smorgasbord of microscopic wonder.

I saw water fleas…

micropia waterfleas screen


micropia lichen 2

And of course, the tardigrades…

This one was a bit camera shy.

And if you have a sudden urge to hug the tardigrade, and wrap your arms around its stumpy eight, they’ve installed this monster:

micropia giant tardigrade
This is what it could be, Tardi. We could be together and no one could judge us. If I were 2,000 times smaller…

Less interactive exhibits show the important roles microbes play in our everyday lives – clearing our infections, keeping our bathrooms clean, making our yoghurt, etc.

The diversity of organisms that live alongside us is truly remarkable – and yet it’s all completely invisible to us. What’s also striking is the microbes’ strange beauty – when lots of them get together, they can make patterns that are very pleasing to our human eyes, even if they do make us violently ill on ingestion. For example, take this:

micropia botrytis-cinerea
Credit: Micropia

Isn’t it pretty? Oh, what is it, you ask? Yeah, that’s Botrytis cinerea. The agent for grey mould. Yeah. Not good for humans.

I’m not one to gush or anything, so let’s say that the Micropia experience made the 12-hour coach journey (with ferry ride!) there and back totally worth it. I’d definitely return. If only to give Tardi a hug.


Life after the freezer: diary of a time-travelling tardigrade

It emerged this week that a team of cryobiologists in Japan had recovered two tardigrades – aquatic microscopic invertebrates sometimes known as water bears – after they’d spent more than 30 years in the freezer.

These particularly hardy specimens were collected in November 1983 from moss samples in East Antarctica. Since then, they’d been chilling out in storage at a bracing -20C. Tardigrades survive freezing conditions by entering cryobiosis – a state where their metabolism can drop to 0.01% of its normal level.

Last May, they came out of the deep freeze, and were left to thaw. The two surviving individuals, nicknamed Sleeping Beauty (SB)-1 and SB-2, were placed on a culture plate and given some Volvic and algae to munch on.

KFS managed to prise from the tiny hands of SB-1 a daily log of its goings on since the Great Thaw, exclusively reproduced here.

Diary of a time-travelling tardigrade

Day 1: Ooh, my back. How long was I out for? Ok, so I can move one pair of legs, but I distinctly remember having more than that before. Think I’ll just rest for a bit.

Day 5: Discovered two more pairs of legs today. Feeling more like myself. I won’t be moonwalking anytime soon, but give it some time. Now I have some use of my limbs, I can finally book those tickets for Return of the Jedi.

Later that day: (On the phone) What? We’re on episode 7 now? What is “go online”?

Even later that day: So it looks like that little Quualudes bender from 1983 took me out for more than 30 years. We’re on The Force Awakens now. Wait a minute, does this make me The Force?

Day 9: Ok, and I’m on the move. Managed to lift myself up and start crawling again. Don’t know what came over m- ooh, is that food? I might just move towards it…

Day 13: ALGAE?!? I’ve been asleep for 30 years and this is all you have for me? Jonesing for a Pepsi Free.

Day 21: Knocked myself up today. Got three eggs on the go. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, right?

Day 23: Eggs are laid! I just opened something called a Facebook page so I can share pictures of my brood with the world. Apparently the only viable profile pictures are ones you’ve taken of yourself. Here’s my best effort:

tardigrade selfie 1
Hello, handsome. Credit: globaltv.com

I did a bit of snooping and it looks like most of my friends have evaded capture by the white coats. Echinisca’s still kicking in Antarctica and Acutopher’s finally taking that trip to the Marianas Trench, but no one knows where Batillipina went. Rumour is she hitched a ride on the white coats’ Curiosity rover a few years back and we haven’t heard from her since. Hope she’s messing with their data. Life on Mars? Don’t make me laugh. We put an end to that long ago…

sb-3 tardigrade
One of SB-1’s brethren after an algae supper. Scale bar = 100 μm. Credit: ScienceDaily

From Laika to nematodes: animals in space

Behold! It’s the perfect crossover of animals and space as behind door 23 in the Royal Institution’s Advent calendar this year is this delightful infographic featuring the most well-travelled creatures in the animal kingdom. Click to embiggen.

Animals in space RI infographic thumb
Credit: Anthony Lewis/Royal Institution of Great Britain

And a very merry Christmas from KFS!