Max Ernst was fascinated with microscopic images, which were first broadly distributed in the early twentieth century. For The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses (1921), he created an overpainting on the ambitious scale of traditional oil painting by using a commercially available teaching chart. Ernst inverted the found poster, which contains magnified views of brewer’s yeast cells, and selectively painted in a black background. He then painted gears and bands, as well as humanizing details including eyes, noses, limbs, and whiskers to create a virtual circus of tightrope walkers, clowns and cyclists. The inscription lands amusing sexual connotations to the hairs, orifices and protrusions of these microorgasms.
This past summer, the Museum of Natural History had a fun special exhibit called Life at the Limits: Stories of Amazing Species. There was an additional fee (above regular admission) to get into the exhibit, but I paid it because I wanted to see this thing that looks like a Bear in a Hazmat Suit. Because, What the Hell is That Thing? I wondered.
It turns out that Hazmat Bear is called a Tardigrade — a water-dwelling, eight-legged, segmented micro-animal — and it was definitely the star of the show! There were giant, suspended Tardigrade models all over the ceiling inside the exhibit, accompanied by many informative placards telling you why they are so special.
For example, the microscopic Tardigrade can survive for years without water. Generally, it lives on damp moss, where water forms a film around its body. If the moss dries out, the Tardigrade senses trouble. It shrinks into a ball and its vital systems nearly shut down. The dried-out-ball — called a Tun — can live on for up to a decade, then spring back to action when moistened with water again. Fascinating.
The Tardigrade has some fun nicknames as well, such as the “Water Bear” or “Moss Piglet” (My favorite). Tardigrades are a large group of animals that includes some of the toughest creatures in the world. They have been known to survive temperatures far above boiling, and colder than the surface or Pluto. In a word: Resilient!
Why had I never even heard of these little guys before learning about them in a museum exhibit?