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By Andrew Follett
A microscopic animal could be the only species to survive a planet-wide extinction, Oxford University researchers announced Friday.
The study argues that microscopic tardigrades would survive astrophysical catastrophes that wipe out all other life on Earth, and could stick around for another 10 billion years afterwards.
Moreover, the animal’s ability to survive in extreme conditions suggests that alien life could be a lot more common than previously believed.
“Tardigrades are as close to indestructible as it gets on Earth, but it is possible that there are other resilient species examples elsewhere in the universe,” Dr. Rafael Alves Batista, a physicist at Oxford University involved in the research, said in a statement.
“In this context there is a real case for looking for life on Mars and in other areas of the solar system in general,” Batista said. “If Tardigrades are earth’s most resilient species, who knows what else is out there.”
Batista’s research indicates that tardigrades could survive a major asteroid impact, supernova, gamma ray burst and other types of cosmological events that would cause virtually every other animal on Earth to go extinct.
Tardigrades live in water, but are capable of drying out completely when faced with extreme conditions. They’ve survived exposure to temperatures as high as 300 and as low as -459.4 Fahrenheit, just a few degrees away from absolute zero. Specimens have been observed to exist without food or water for more than 30 years. The animals have even survived direct exposure to the vacuum of space or exposures to water pressure six times higher than that of the deepest ocean trenches.
Batista emphasized that humanity is considerably less resilient than tardigrades.
“Without our technology protecting us, humans are a very sensitive species,” Alves Batista said. “Subtle changes in our environment impact us dramatically. There are many more resilient species’ on earth. Life on this planet can continue long after humans are gone.”