Water bears is the name students give to microscopic tardigrades that live on lichens. When dried, these unique little creatures can live for years in suspended animation. They begin to re-animate in as little as 20 minutes if placed in water. Students in a biology class at Wando High School in Mt. Pleasant, SC decided that this made water bears prime space candidates. At first, they ordered specimens through a biological supply house, but discovered that they could collect them locally. Although Charleston has none of the limestone rock that tardegrades prefer, the students discovered that they could be found on old limestone tombstones. By flushing water through collected lichens, water bears could be concentrated under a microscope. Once carefully dried, the tardegrades were flight-ready, having gone from a 19th century graveyard to an ultramodern spacecraft. Because the water bears were easy to see under a classroom microscope, other classes became interested. Wando High's "Bear Hunters" became mentors to first grade scientists at Goodwin Elementary School and supplied them with bears and training.


Explore these water bear images!

Tardegrades can be found on lichen.

First grade students examine water bears under a microscope and draw their observations.

Students scrape lichen from brick wall to take back to the classroom.

This is a water bear under a classroom microscope. You can see the "legs" and "feet". Students count the claws on the feet as a part of their observations.

A student extracts concentrated tardegrades in order to prepare a slide.

Water bears are re-hydrated and placed in funnels in order to concentrate them.

This is a typical view of a water bear through a classroom microscope.