The news this week about Hobbit-(wo)man led me to recall one of two books which obsessed me in my early teenage years, Bernard Heuvelmans' On The Track of Unknown Animals. Cyptozoology was one source of escape during a lonely start to boarding school life. The other book that I remember vividly from those delicate years is As The Naked Wind From The Sea — a title which left little to the imagination (and the book, even less), and which I'm delighted to see was made into a film which was banned in Finland before 1997. This Swedish novel made the rounds in a sex-starved, all-boys school and fulfilled every male fantasy I could think of at the time — and some — as we wondered and wondered about girls, an unknown animal for sure.
It was Arnold Darlington (1912-1986), Malvern's renowned Head of Biology, who fed my day-time enthusiasm for the first kind of biology and, in particular, encouraged my research into an obscure little animal, the tardigrade, a creature so extraordinary as to catch and hold my interest.
NASA's Astrobiology site cites the tardigrade as an example of an 'extreme animal':
Some organisms, however, have evolved to adapt to a loss of water – in essence, to cheat death until water reappears. One such organism is a microscopic animal called a "tardigrade." … If their environment dries up, the tardigrades undergo a process called anhydrobiosis (life without water). A sugar called trehalose moves into their cells to replace the lost water, and the tardigrade curls into a little ball called a "tun." Their metabolism lowers to a death-like 0.01% of normal, or is entirely undetectable. Depending on how long they have been in an anhydrobiotic state, tardigrades can become active again within a few minutes to a few hours after exposure to water. Anhydrobiosis is just one type of a range of adaptable techniques called cryptobiosis. The other types of cryptobiosis are cryobiosis (cold temperatures), osmobiosis (salt water), and anoxybiosis (reduction of oxygen). Cryptobiotic animals were first documented in 1702 by Anton van Leeuwenhoek, when he observed tiny life forms in sediment collected from rooftops. He dried the "animalcules" to preserve them, and when he later added water he saw the creatures begin to move around. (The animals van Leeuwenhoek studied were probably rotifers – a microscopic organism that uses a wheel-like organ to swim and feed). Because of their ability to withstand hostile conditions, tardigrades and other cryptobiotic organisms are of interest to astrobiologists. Some tardigrades can survive in temperatures as low as minus 200 degrees Celsius (minus 328 F). Others can survive temperatures as high as 151 degrees C (304 F). Tardigrades can survive the process of freezing or thawing, as well as changes in salinity, extreme vacuum pressure conditions, and a lack of oxygen. Tardigrades also are resistant to levels of X-ray radiation that are hundreds of times more lethal to humans and other organisms.
How intriguing now that, just when it seemed to the casual eye that we had nowhere truly unknown left to explore on the face of the planet, there is, perhaps, a greater chance than we had imagined that close relatives of ours (the little people of lore?) are alive and well, undiscovered, deep in the forests of the world:
The discovery of Homo floresiensis makes it much more likely that stories of other mythical, human-like creatures are founded on grains of truth. In the light of the Flores skeleton, a recent initiative to scour central Sumatra for 'orang pendek' can be viewed in a more serious light. This small, hairy, manlike creature has hitherto been known only from Malay folklore, a debatable strand of hair and a footprint. Now, cryptozoology, the study of such fabulous creatures, can come in from the cold. Another argument in favour of such searches comes from the recent discovery of several new species of large mammal, notably in Southeast Asia. For example, Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, a species of ox from the remote Vu Qiang nature reserve on the border between Vietnam and Laos, was first described from hunting trophies in only 1992. Another species of bovid, the kouprey (Bos sauveli), was discovered in Indochina in 1937. Neither of these creatures is as exotic as a yeti or orang pendek, but the point is made. If animals as large as oxen can remain hidden into an era when we would expect that scientists had rustled every tree and bush in search of new forms of life, there is no reason why the same should not apply to new species of large primate, including members of the human family. Nature