Published: Fri, July 14, 2017
Science | By Cecil Little

The Last Survivors on Earth

The Last Survivors on Earth

The researchers speculate that tardigrades, or animals similar to them, could be living on planets other than Earth, so long as there is a source of water. They analyzed the probabilities of certain disasters, judged that Earth will not experience a calamity in which all its water is boiled off, and therefore concluded that tardigrades will be around until the sun explodes and engulfs our planet. It also reveals that once life emerges, it is surprisingly resilient and hard to destroy, opening the possibility of life on other planets. They've survived the frozen vacuum of space and even can bring themselves back to life.

The creatures, known as tardigrades, are staggeringly hardy water-dwelling animals.

This resilient species can withstand extreme conditions including 150-degree heat, pressure six times what you find in an ocean trench, and up to 30 years without food or water - all of which which will aid their survival.

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Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers describe how they probed the conundrum by exploring the likelihood of a variety of catastrophes serious enough to wipe out tardigrades on an Earth-like planet, including a nearby supernova, a burst of gamma-rays, and an impact by a large asteroid powerful enough to cause the oceans to boil away.

There is plenty of research already looking into apocalyptic events on Earth, with humans potentially wiped out by temperature rises, temperature falls, meteorites, super volcanoes and sea rises, what of our planet's hardier species?

In terms of supernovae, the researchers found that in order for an exploding star to boil the oceans, it would need to be 0.14 light-years away.

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Supernovae or gamma-ray bursts, electromagnetic explosions that happen in other galaxies, could deplete the Earth's protective ozone layer which protects us from radiation, but life could continue below ground, and deep under water.

Three possible cataclysmic events - an asteroid impact, a supernova and a gamma ray burst - were considered by the study. To exterminate tardigrades, something would have to boil the oceans away (no more water means no more water bears). "Because [tardigrades] are so hardy it means that events that we are anxious about as human beings, and rightly so, certainly wouldn't concern you if you just considered all life", said Sloan.

There are endless ways to end the human race, with gentle changes to our environment enough to push us over the edge. There are many more resilient species' on earth. "If Tardigrades are earth's most resilient species, who knows what else is out there", said Batista.

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"In this context there is a real case for looking for life on Mars and in other areas of the solar system in general", said Dr. Alves Batista said.

"There are many more resilient species' on earth". The tardigrade is believed to be the hardiest creature alive, so by asking what would kill it, they were asking what it would take to destroy all life on this planet.

"Although near supernovae or large asteroid impacts would be catastrophic for people, tardigrades could be unaffected", said co-author David Sloan. But the fact that tardigrades are so resistant to other potential apocalypses in the interim implies that "life is tough, once it gets going", Shostak says. "Species, or even entire genera may become extinct, but life as a whole will go on". Will there be any form of life left?

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"Organisms with similar tolerances to radiation and temperature as tardigrades could survive long-term below the surface in these conditions", said Prof Loeb.

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