Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks
Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks
Illustration for article titled With apologies to tardigrada.net

It was the end of February and online science writing had to tackle a story about microscopic organisms. For the Gizmodo Media Group, that meant someone at Gizmodo had to tackle the story. The usual suspect was chosen.


So if you want to write about tardigrades to the general audience, you must first describe tardigrades to the general audience. You might write:

Tardigrades, sometimes referred to as moss piglets or water bears, are eight-legged microscopic animals


And that sounds really good! One might even say it sounds like what Wikipedia’s article on tardigrades says

Tardigrades (also known colloquially as water bears, or moss piglets) are water-dwelling, eight-legged, segmented micro-animals


That’s fairly close and maybe paraphrases a bit too closely. But there’s funnier paraphrasing later, just you wait.

that like to live in moss, lichen, decaying leaves, and soil

Tardigrades “like to live in” water so it’s more accurate to say that they live in water in those places, but this sounds close enough.

They typically live a few months, but one lived more than 30 years after being frozen.


In the article this sentence links to an article that the same author wrote two years ago which described a situation in which a tardigrade was collected in Antarctica in November 1983, stored at -20°C (-4°F) until May 2014, and then reheated to a viable temperature wherein the animal resumed its metabolic functions. I would generally argue that that individual did not “live” in the normal sense of the word (taking in nutrients, having intracellular processes, excreting waste…), and in the article two years ago the author said as much, saying “Not surprisingly, the tardigrade took its sweet time coming back to life.” But now the author says that that individual was alive for 30 years so I guess they changed their mind.

M. shonaicus belongs to the hufelandi group of tardigrades, whose eggs have similar characteristics.


Okay this one sentence requires a lot of unpacking. Macrobiotus hufelandi is another, earlier-described, species of tardigrade and is the type species (in other words, the first species named to a genus) of the genus Macrobiotus. The “hufelandi group” that the author is referring to is the Macrobiotus hufelandi group; it is tardigrades who are (as far as evidence shows) more evolutionary related to members of Macrobiotus than to other tardigrades. I am uncertain why the author chose not to italicize hufelandi. The “eggs have similar characteristics” phrase is a reference to how the researchers compared egg morphology between M. shonaicus and its congeners. On the one hand the eggs are similar to those of other species within Macrobiotus. But on the other hand they are distinct enough to be species diagnostic. But on the gripping hand this author maybe doesn’t completely understand how species description research happens so I suppose I should be glad he didn’t completely write something wrong.

The researchers studied their physical characteristics using phase contrast microscopes (where a transparent object is conveyed through changes in brightness)


I do not understand why the author chose the verb convey. I think he is using it as a synonym for “reveal”, in the sense that phase contrast microscopy “reveals” transparent objects better than bright-field microscopy. I also assume that the author was trying to paraphrase this line from a Wikipedia article in a covert manner:

Phase-contrast microscopy is an optical-microscopy technique that converts phase shifts in light passing through a transparent specimen to brightness changes in the image.


In this form of microscopy there are no “changes in brightness”. The “changes in brightness” are a byproduct of the microscope doing some light physics to increase the amount of contrast apparent within the specimen.

and scanning electron microscopes.

I’m unsure why the author claimed that the researchers used plural numbers of microscopes. The researchers state that they used “a Nikon Eclipse 50i phase contrast light microscope” and “a Versa 3D DualBeam Scanning Electron Microscope”. They used a single microscope of two different kinds. That’s fairly normal standard operating procedure for science. You use the minimum number of instruments in order to lower the likelihood that errors are being produced by slight differences in instruments.

They also looked at their DNA,

I think the author means that the research team extracted DNA and then sequenced parts of it.

and they pinpointed four molecular genetic markers that distinguish these from any other known species of tardigrade.


No. That is not at all what happened. The researchers acquired four sections of DNA (18S, 28S, ITS-S, COI) from the tardigrades they were studying. They sequenced those sections. They compared their newly-acquired sequences against already-acquired sequences from other species of tardigrades. As is the norm for molecular comparisons, they found similarities and differences. They did not, at all, “pinpoint four molecular genetic markers”. The sequences do “distinguish these from any other species of tardigrade” but they also showed that this species is closely nested within Macrobiotus; they’re not dramatically distinct sequences, they’re simultaneously just different enough from other species that they are distinct, but close enough to other species that phylogenetic analyses found them to be a species of Macrobiotus.

This research was published today in the open access journal PLoS One.

Since PLOS One started being a thing while I was training to be a scientist, I learned the same capitalization that the author used. But apparently they changed the capitalization of the name of their journal several years ago. Intriguingly an article from two years ago by the same author used the right capitalization (but didn’t bother to italicize it) and in the comments I used the wrong capitalization. Oops. Both myself and that writer made errors and here we are two years later still making errors.

its eggs have a solid surface, thus qualifying it as a member of the hufelandi sub-group of tardigrades.


No. The solid egg surface is a feature of the persimilis subgroup (why does the author choose to hyphenate sub-group?) within the hufelandi group. The researchers never state in their paper why they thought that this new species was in the hufelandi group so I’ll assume the answer is “because it looked like it was in the group”.

So the new species contains a mishmash of characteristics from other species, and it’s likely descended from an ancient strand.


All species are “a mishmash of characteristics from other species”, except for the relatively small number of unique features that a species has evolved since it last shared a common ancestor with its closest relatives. Likewise, all species are “descended from an ancient strand” because life has been a continuous process on Earth, without breaks, for something like 4 billion years. In short, this is a filler sentence that provides no useful information. Why not be slightly more specific and provide useful information? Macrobiotus shonaicus (found in Japan) is closely related to M. polypiformis (found in Ecuador), M. paulinae (found in Kenya), M. scoticus (found in Scotland), and M. kristenseni (found in Argentina). There are probably some really interesting zoogeographical signals in those results in order to explain how these species have spread so far away from one another.

Finding new species of tardigrades is good because

Finding out about the world we live in is important. Right on!

we stand to learn a lot from these critters.

Oh. Right, this is a tech website so we have to pretend that biological organisms exist for their technological applications.

Their ability to withstand freezing, for example, can help scientists develop “dry vaccines,” where water is replaced with trechalose—a non-reducing sugar produced by tardigardes to protect their tissues and DNA when frozen.


This sentence is interesting because the author spelled tardigrades wrong. Also because the usual spelling for that sugar is trehalose; this trechalose spelling is the minority spelling. Also because it is written very similarly to a sentence from this website, including the minority spelling of trehalose.

Their cryptobiotic properties helped scientists to develop so called ‘dry vaccines’. In such vaccines water is replaced with trechalose (a non-reducing sugar used by water bears to protect their tissues and DNA during cryptobiosis).


I thought the earlier Wikipedia potential paraphrases were blatant but dang this is barely covering one’s tracks. I hope that website’s owner doesn’t mind being paraphrased without citation by Gizmodo!

Also, their dehydration tolerance could teach us new ways to preserve various biological materials, such as cells, crops, and meats.


This line seemed really unlike the author’s writing so I felt compelled to look it up. It’s based on a sentence from a previous Gizmodo article:

“Especially, if dehydration-tolerance can become transferable, I hope it will transform the way we preserve various biological materials, including cells, crops, meats, fish, and so on.”


That sentence was a quote from a researcher so this author kind of paraphrased a direct quote they had published earlier but then didn’t cite it. Oh well?

But seriously my apologies to Lukasz Michalczyk over at tardigrada.net for being “paraphrased without citation” by Gizmodo.


Top image from Sci-News, who adapted it from the academic publication.

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