by Ferdinand Burton
I was gasping for breath when the llama gobsmacked me again. Llamas are notorious spitters, and this one had taken a marked dislike for me. Maybe my camera gear was too heavy a burden? My companion, Dr. Sandra Erstweiler, professor of microzoology at the University of Oklahoma, and our two Quechuan guides, Ysidro and Juan, roared with laughter. We were 4500 meters high in the Andes, on the Incan Trail, hiking toward the spectacular Wiñay Wayna ruin complex.
And I was beginning to think that my first instinct — to turn down this assignment — was right. An endangered tardigrade? A microscopic .5 mm mini-creature found virtually everywhere in the world? How interesting could this be? Then my editor said the magic word: “The Freckled species is also known as the Mummy Tardigrade.”
Mummies. The most coveted NatGeo assignment of all. The cover is guaranteed, with a lavish photo spread and premium expense account. I was hooked.
Let’s give the lowly tardigrade some respect. Looking like an obese little rhinocerus, it has colonized more diverse habitats than any other animal, including humans — from the bottom of the oceans to steamy jungles to the frozen Antarctic to the high thermosphere. Some have even survived in outer space. It is the reigning king of adaptive radiation, virtually indestructible, perhaps the most successful species of all time.
The Freckled, or Mummy Tardigrade, has adapted to the most unusual habitat of all: well-preserved human corpses at least 500 years old. Mummies. There are thousands of ancient Incan mummies in the “Pachamama,” the Quechuan term for Mother Earth in the high Andes. We were going to see one.
Ysidro wiped the llama spittle off my beard and gave me a galleta bomba — a quinoa biscuit wrapped in steamed coca leaves. Half an hour later, I was bounding up the slope like a frisky young llama, outpacing my tormentors.
We arrived at Wiñay Wayna, climbing the steep stone terraces before veering off toward a cave higher on the mountain — the tomb of an ancient Incan nobleman. Dr. Erstweiler and I donned our caving gear, slipped through a narrow fissure in the rock, then hunched over as the ceiling dipped, elbowing our way through a hot tunnel of mucky guano teeming with blind beetles and aggressive centipedes. The tunnel emptied out into a living-room sized chamber. And there it was, sparkling in the headlamps— the gold-leaf encrusted stone sarcophagus of Huchuysisa Imasumaq.
It was a nearly perfect mummy: dark grey, flaky, shrink-wrapped skin around a gaping, toothy rictus, death throes frozen in time, one glazed eye staring heavenward, the other sunken. It was wrapped in decaying strips of yucca linen, with a jade and rutilated quartz pendant and other jewels indicating high birth. I set the camera on burst mode and quickly racked up over 50 frames before Dr. Erstweiler stopped me. The flash was heating up the chamber and could drive the tardigrades deeper into the mummy.
She connected an endoscope to her iPad and snaked the muzzle end through one of the mummy’s wrinkled nostrils. Probing deeper, we could see the sinus cavities on her screen; we were spelunking again, on a smaller scale. Globulous stalactites of ossified embalming fluid hung from the roof, the floor powdered with dust and insect dung — and there they were. Two Freckled Tardigrades! We zoomed in.
“Ohmigod, they’re courting!” Sandra cried before lowering her voice to a whisper. “Ive been after this again for years!”
The male was obvious: gyrating on his rear four legs, turquoise freckles glowing more brightly, while the female sat in still judgment. She must have been impressed; she didn’t skitter off when he mounted her. Then the screen went dark.
“We can’t watch,” said Sandra, shutting off the endoscope. “We think they use quantum field sensation with the typical indeterminacy involved — the secret of their great success — so our observation could affect the outcome. We could trigger a confused gender dysphoria in the sperm, or even a miscarriage.” I was disappointed, frankly, to miss the X-rated scene, but bowed to the necessity for modesty. Sandra counted off 60 seconds on her watch, then an additional 30 for safety before turning on the scope again.
“Oh no, they died!” I exclaimed, seeing the pair motionless on their backs, the clawed feet sticking straight up.
“No, just exhausted.” She explained that a full minute of copulation in their life spans would be equivalent to three years of continuous, nonstop intercourse in our lives. I was staggered, gaining ever more respect for this most underestimated of creatures.
“Let’s let them rest,” said the professor.
Back at base camp, she showed me Excel charts indicating a shocking decline in Mummy Tardigrade populations in the high Andes over the past 20 years. “Twenty percent in the first decade was bad, but 40% now is just heartbreaking,” she choked, her eyes welling up. “We know the cause — loss of habitat. Which indicates a problem with human population. Extrapolate that forward, and you’ve got eventual extinction of both species. The Mummy Tardigrade is small, but it’s really our biggest canary in the coal mine.”
“That’s pretty grim,” I said. “But wait… isn’t this a little backwards? Human population is exploding, so that means more bodies —“
She cut me off: “I have two terminal degrees in tardigrade embryology, morphology, and epidemiology. What’s your expertise?”
That put me back in my soft, humanities-major place. I could see her point now. Like the proverbial butterfly wing beat that stirs cascading changes, or the Broken Windows theory of crime prevention, sometimes the smallest of forces can generate the largest, unforeseen effects. The two most successful species on Earth are locked in a fateful symbiotic embrace, so please, let’s stop demeaning the humble tardigrade. As they go, so go we.