January 17, 2021

Tested From Home: How to Find Tardigrades In Your Backyard!

Hey everyone! It's Ariel Waldman from Tested.

I host the show Offworld on Tested, which is all about exploring the science of science fiction in space movies and pop culture.

It's a lot of fun and we always have really awesome guests, so if you haven't had a chance to check out previous episodes of Offworld either on the YouTube channel or on your favorite podcast app, definitely go check those out.

Like most of the Tested team I'm here in San Francisco where we are sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I thought since the world of microscopic critters has been thrust into the spotlight so much due to this virus that I would balance things out sharing a more friendly microscopic critter that we should all get to know better: the tardigrade.

Also known as water bears, tardigrades are delightful little animals and what's really awesome about them is that you can find them around your own home.

So I thought I'd share with all of you how you could actually find tardigrades near your own home or even online.

Some of you may know that about a year ago I led a five-week expedition to Antarctica to film tardigrades and other microbes living underneath the ice there.

I brought microscopes with me into the field so that I could really film and see these creatures in motion, because a lot of people view Antarctica as a completely lifeless place, but the reality is is that Antarctica is actually full of life.

It's just invisible to us without a microscope.

In case you're interested in what it's like to spend five weeks in Antarctica, I filmed the entire expedition and put it up on my YouTube channel and will drop a link to that here, too.

The result of all of that work is that you can actually explore all the microscopic animals and critters that live in Antarctica from your own home without a microscope.

No microscope required.

I recently launched lifeundertheice.

org, which is a website that essentially is a virtual microscope, allowing you to wade in and delve into this entire petri dish of curiosities, and pan around and find new microbes and zoom in and out of them and do a bunch of really cool things.

And you can even share individual microbes that you find with friends or family and it's just a lot of fun to explore and it's a thing that you can do from home without really leaving your couch.

Okay, but how do you find tardigrades around your own home? They're famous for surviving the vacuum of space and living in Antarctica.

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why would they be around your own home? Well, this is what I love so much about tardigrades.

They're everywhere on Earth.

They have the nickname of moss piglets because they love moss.

So anywhere there's moss, there's a good chance there's tardigrades there.

So just think about that as you're walking out of your house or around your neighborhood.

If you're getting a walk during this quarantine and you're allowed to take hikes or walks, you're likely walking by tons and tons of tardigrades.

Zoos of tardigrades in sidewalk cracks, in parks, in your potted plants, everywhere.

They're really everywhere and that's what I love so much about them because they're really these fascinating tiny, tiny, little animals that can survive so much stuff but they're all around us.

So I'm going to show you how you can use some household items and I'm going to also test out some of the relatively cheaper microscopes that are available on Amazon to see how they hold up.

This is totally something that you can do with no prior experience.

I myself was a self-taught microscopist for a number of years before I joined the San Francisco Microscopical Society, and then later got certified at Merritt College's Microscopy Program.

If you're interested in levelling up in microscopy, local resources like that are really awesome.

But this is definitely something you can do even if you've never touched a microscope or tried something like this before.

Fair warning though, this is a little bit like doing a puzzle.

So you will need to have some patience and it might take you a couple or a few hours to sort of get the hang of it and find some tardigrades, but if you're patient and stick with it you will definitely find some.

First, you want to gather your supplies.

So, for sampling moss, taking up little pieces of moss out of either sidewalks or your garden, I typically use a cheese knife and tupperware.

You can also use spoons.

Really anything that helps you sort of lift a little bit of moss up out of the ground and put it into a container, that'll work fine.

Next, for filtering the samples so that you don't get a bunch of dirt obscuring your view when you're looking for tardigrades, you're going to want some just plain tissues and some sort of mesh strainer.

So that mesh strainer can be something like you find in your kitchen sink or the sort of thing that you use to put powdered sugar on your french toast.

Beyond that, you want to get things like bowls or cups or jars or lids.

Things that you can really repurpose for petri dishes or containers.

Really anything that works.

Definitely dive into your drawers and see how you can get creative.

Science is all about getting creative with reusing weird things for other purposes.

So there's no really hard and fast way of what you have to use.

But definitely diving into your kitchen drawers or some of your closets to see what containers you have and what might work best for you, definitely go do that.

I do recommend buying disposable plastic pipettes if you can get them.

But if you can't get them, using something like a turkey baster in your own home will work.

It'll just make your life a little bit easier because essentially when the tardigrades get filtered down they're kind of at the bottom of the bowl and you want an easy way where you can get to the bottom water of the bowl, or at least pour out a lot of the top of it.

So if you don't have a turkey baster and you don't have pipettes at home it's really not a problem.

Just try and use cups or bowls that have a pour spout so that you can very gently, very carefully pour out the top layer of water after you filter them.

If you want to get slightly fancier, definitely feel free to buy some petri dishes and slides and slide covers and clear nail polish to seal your slide covers onto your slides.

You don't have to do that, but you know, it can be fun to play around with all those sort of supplies.

And then finally, I'm going to be reviewing and testing for different microscopes that are fairly more common and relatively cheaper, relatively speaking.

So I'm going to be looking at the Uhandy Mobile Microscope Duet, which is $130 on Amazon that pairs with your phone fairly easily.

I'm going to also be looking at around a $75 stereo microscope that is typically used to inspect electronics that a lot of you may already have something like that in your own home.

I'm also going to be checking out a more expensive microscope.

The inverted field microscope that's $600 on Amazon.

And then finally, I'm going to be looking at my own Bausch and Lomb microscope.

It's a 1960s microscope, stereo microscope.

I don't expect you to have that exact model in your own home but I know a lot of people do have stereo microscopes in their own workshops for looking at all sorts of things, so thought I'd have that in there just for comparison sake.

Once you have your supplies, go into your backyard or a nearby sidewalk or a park and look for moss.

I was able to find some moss growing in between sidewalk cracks that I was able to sample with my little cheese knife and tupperware.

And it's just really fun to find moss in all sorts of different places all over.

Once you're back home with your moss, what you want to do is get a tiny bowl.

Put the mesh strainer inside of that bowl.

Put a couple of tissues on top of that strainer, and then take your moss and put it on top of those tissues.

What you then want to do is pour water on top of the moss so that the moss.

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Essentially the bottom layer of the moss is touching the top layer of the water.

This allows for all the tardigrades to get filtered through and sort of sink to the bottom.

So once you soak this overnight it activates the tardigrades, gets them really excited and perky.

Because, well, they're known as water bears.

They love water.

And then you can take out the strainer, take out the tissues, take out the moss.

And then what you should have at the bottom of that bowl are a bunch of tardigrades because they sunk to the bottom.

So then you want to either pipette out the bottom of the bowl and transfer it to a petri dish or a jar lid, whatever you have available.

Ir if you don't have a pipette at all then you want to very carefully scoop out the top layers of water without disturbing it too much so that you have a smaller water sample to work with and you have a more condensed water sample of tardigrades to work with.

At this point you are ready to go on a tardigrade safari at home! Exciting! Don't get discouraged if you find a bunch of other microbes.

Other microbes are also really cool.

It's really fun to see what sort of things are living in moss.

I'm going to wager I guess that you might find a lot of worm-like creatures when you try this for the first time.

Those are nematodes.

There are so many nematodes in the world.

It's estimated that there's maybe 60 billion nematodes for every single human on the planet, so don't get discouraged if you find a bunch of nematodes for a while and it takes you a little bit longer to find tardigrades.

They're not as prevalent as nematodes are, and that's totally normal.

The way to actually identify a tardigrade while you're looking through different microbes and you're not really sure what's what, is look for stubby little feet with claws on them.

If you find stubby little feet with claws on them, it's a good chance that's a tardigrade and it's a really exciting moment.

They're typically between a quarter of a millimeter to a millimeter in size.

So they come in all sort of different sizes and that's totally normal.

So, here's what I was able to see with each of the four microscopes that I tested at home.

So, first I started out with my Bausch and Lomb Stereozoom 7.

Again, I don't expect you to have a 1960s version of a Bausch and Lomb Stereozoom, but I wanted to try it out since I'm a little bit more familiar with it.

So I used a really tiny petri dish and found a tardigrade and was able to zoom in and out of the tardigrade between ten total magnification to 70 total magnification.

When I talk about total magnification I'm talking about the objective times the eyepiece.

I then transferred our little sidewalk friend to a Uhandy cover slip that comes with the microscope Duet case that you can get off of Amazon.

And then I used their high magnification lens on my front-facing camera on my phone to see what I could really see.

I was able to see the tardigrade and I was able to see it at a pretty good size.

The only problem with the Uhandy, using this high mag the way I was was, that you have to create your own light source which can be a little fiddly if you're doing it in the middle of the night like I was.

You know, so, it's a little bit of juggling and there is a bit of distortion at the sides but it is a mobile microscope that does work, and I think if you're willing to juggle around light sources and getting it to fit perfectly on your phone, then it's not such a bad option.

I then moved our tardigrade friend over to the inverted portable microscope.

This is a really cool microscope because it's really a proper microscope in a tiny size.

So you get the optical clarity that you expect to have with a normal microscope and I was able to look at it between a hundred to four hundred total magnification.

So you can get really close up if you really want to investigate those claws or look at different aspects of a tardigrade.

It's really great for that.

It also has a built-in LED light source so you don't have to worry about light sources at all and that LED light source can be battery-powered or with an adapter, so that's definitely useful.

Finally, I wanted to see what you could actually see with the $75 stereoscope that's typically used for looking at electronics and I was really delighted to see that you can actually get a good image with the tardigrade in it.

It's just very small.

Well it's really small and it might not be the magnification you want.

I was personally really excited about it because you could see in a tiny drop of water just how big that tardigrade is and really get more context for what tardigrades look like when they're crawling all around you.

Okay, that's it for me but definitely share with us what microbes you were able to find in your own home area or on lifeundertheice.

org.

We definitely want to see and we want to geek out about them with all of you.

Otherwise, I'll see you next time.

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