Researchers Find Microscopic Tardigrade Fossil Preserved in Amber

by Jon D. B.

This “once in a generation” discovery is only the third tardigrade fossil ever, and begs to be the plot of a Microscopic Jurassic Park.

If you’re a natural history fanatic like this Outsider, then you’ve heard of water bears. Formally known as tardigrades, these chubby little micro-animals look like they belong on another planet altogether. But they’re not aliens at all. In fact, they’ve been inhabiting literally every part of Earth for over 500 million years.

Now, the third-ever tardigrade fossil is surfacing – and it came in iconic Jurassic Park fashion: encased in amber.

Paleontologists almost missed it. It took months to notice the infinitesimal speck inside the warm-colored fossilized resin. Yet there it was, an illusive tardigrade fossil, frozen in time between three ants, a beetle, and a flower.

The water bear’s “forever home” is a Dominican amber piece 16-million years of age. These microscopic animals (see below) are so tiny that they rarely leave behind fossils. Preservation in amber, then, is the perfect vehicle for fossilization.

Zoologists and biologist Georg Mayer prepares tardigrade situated in petri dishes in front of an image of on a 1000-fold magnification of the 0.2mm small animal featured on a screen at a laboratory of the Institute of Biology in Leipzig, Germany, 11 March 2013. Tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, survive temporary freeze, being cooked and stays in outer space. (Photo by Waltraud Grubitzsch/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Dominican Amber Reveals New Species of Tardigrade

The discovery is remarkable on many fronts. The amber-laden specimen now represents a new species, as well: Paradoryphoribius chronocaribbeus.

According to CNN‘s report on the find, this little one represents the first-ever tardigrade fossil from the Cenozoic era. We currently live in this time period, which began 66 million years ago.

The Cenozoic would see the rise of the mammals (see: tiny rodents to mammoths to us) as the dominant species on Earth. And tardigrades have been here through it all. They’ll likely be here long after us, too.

Our current tardigrades are genus Isohypsibioidea. They survive boiling ocean waters, volcanic regions, arctic ice, and even space travel. They survive the most intense, uninhabitable environments on the planet – and have completely redefined what we think of as “uninhabitable.”

Water bears are all under a millimeter in length, and require a microscope for identification. It’s odd to think of an animal at this size, but they have a brain and a nervous system just like us. With eight legs and a pharynx for a mouth, they’re the smallest-known animal to have these features.

And just like our beloved non-microscopic fuzzy bears, tardigrades have claws. This new specimen is a perfect preservation, too; making a fascinating paleontological study.

‘The Discovery of a Fossil Tardigrade is Truly a Once-in-a-Generation Event’

“The discovery of a fossil tardigrade is truly a once-in-a-generation event,” says Phil Barden, the senior author of the fossil study. Barden is assistant professor of biology at New Jersey Institute of Technology, and his statement broke the news wide open.

He likens tardigrades to a “ghost lineage for paleontologists with almost no fossil record.

“It’s a faint speck in amber,” Barden adds. “In fact, chronocaribbeus was originally an inclusion hidden in the corner of an amber piece… It wasn’t spotted for months.”