Current Status of the Tardigrada: Evolution and Ecology

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Conference Proceeding

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The Tardigrada are bilaterally symmetrical micrometazoans with four pairs of lobopod legs terminating in claws or sucking disks. They occupy a diversity of niches in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments throughout the world. Some have a cosmopolitan distribution, while others are endemic. About 900 species have been described thus far, but many more species are expected as additional habitats are investigated. Most are less than 1 mm in body length and are opaque or translucent, exhibiting colors such as brown, green, orange, yellow, red, or pink in the cuticle and/or gut. Marine species are more variable in body shape and overall appearance and generally exhibit low population density with high species diversity. Reproductive modes include sexual reproduction and parthenogenesis, but much remains to be known about development. Tardigrades have a hemocoel-type of fluid-filled body cavity, a complete digestive tract, and a lobed dorsal brain with a ventral nerve cord with fused ganglia. Recent molecular analyses and additional morphological studies of the nervous system have confirmed the phylogenetic position of tardigrades as a sister group of the arthropods. The ability of tardigrades to undergo cryptobiosis has long intrigued scientists. Although tardigrades are active only when surrounded by a film of water, they can enter latent states in response to desiccation (anhydrobiosis), temperature (cryobiosis), low oxygen (anoxybiosis), and salinity changes (osmobiosis). Cryptobiotic states aid in dispersal.