Superphylum Ecdysozoa: Nematodes and Tardigrades

Phylum Tardigrada

The tardigrades ("slow-steppers") comprise a phylum of inconspicuous little animals living in marine, freshwater, or damp terrestrial environments throughout the world. They are commonly called "water bears" because of their plump bodies and the large claws on their stubby legs. There are over 1,000 species, most of which are less than 1 mm in length. A chitinous cuticle covers the body surface and may be divided into plates (Figure). Tardigrades are known for their ability to enter a state called cryptobiosis, which provides them with are resistance to multiple environmental challenges, including desiccation, very low temperatures, vacuum, high pressure, and radiation. They can suspend their metabolic activity for years, and survive the loss of up to 99% of their water content. Their remarkable resistance has recently been attributed to unique proteins that replace water in their cells and protect their internal cell structure and their DNA from damage.

The image displays an electron micrgraph of a “water bear” or tardigrade.
Scanning electronmicrograph of Milnesium tardigradum. (credit: Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) -

Morphology and Physiology

Tardigrades have cylindrical bodies, with four pairs of legs terminating in a number of claws. The cuticle is periodically shed, including the cuticular covering of the claws. The first three pairs of legs are used for walking, and the posterior pair for clinging to the substrate. A circular mouth leads to a muscular pharynx and salivary glands. Tardigrades feed on plants, algae, or small animals. Plant cells are pierced with a chitinous stylet and the cellular contents are then sucked into the gut by the muscular pharynx. Bands of single muscle cells are attached to the various points of the epidermis and extend into the legs to provide ambulatory movement. The major body cavity is a hemocoel, but there are no specialized circulatory structures for moving the blood, nor are there specialized respiratory structures. Malpighian tubules in the hemocoel remove metabolic wastes and transport them to the gut. A dorsal brain is connected to a ventral nerve cord with segmental ganglia associated with the appendages. Sensory structures are greatly reduced, but there is a pair of simple eyespots on the head, and sensory cilia or bristles concentrated toward the head end of the animal.


Most tardigrades are dioecious, and males and females each have a single gonad. Mating usually occurs at the time of a molt and fertilization is external. Eggs may be deposited in a molted cuticle or attached to other objects. Development is direct, and the animal may molt a dozen times during its lifetime. In tardigrades, like nematodes, development produces a fixed number of cells, with the actual number of cells being dependent on the species. Further growth occurs by enlarging the cells, not by multiplying them.