Amazing Species: Life at the Limits

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From majestic eagles to adorable otters,  the Cleveland Museum of Natural History features many beautiful creatures. But a current museum exhibit showcases some lifeforms that don’t qualify as cuddly or attractive.  “Amazing Species: Life at the Limits” shows visitors many plants and animals with distinct features that have allowed them to survive in extreme conditions. 

Director of Wildlife Resources Harvey Webster says the poster child for the exhibit is most likely the tardigrade or “water bear.”    This animal, which is about a half a millimeter in size, lives among mosses in moist conditions. 

“If you see an extreme blow up of it, it has this funny little face that looks kind of compelling, you almost want to give him a big hug,” Webster said.

However, you might change your mind, when you pull back to see the tri-radiate sucking phalanx that allows them to suck juice from plants.

Webster says what makes the water bear amazing is that if its habitat dries out, the creature forms a barrel-like structure.  Once inside, the water bear enters crypto-biotic state, which places it into a kind of suspended animation.  If the bear receives water, then it springs back to life.

“They have had tardigrades in space and exposed them to cosmic radiation, and they are able to survive that.  They’ve had them in boiling water, at 212 degrees, they’ve survived that. They’ve had them at 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and they survived that. It’s unbelievable what they can tolerate,” Webster said.

The exhibit also features the porcupine fish, which swallows water to expand its size as a defense mechanism and causes its spines to be perpendicular to its skin.  

You can also see and smell the corpse flower, which emits an odor which smells like rotting meat.  This scent draws the flower’s pollinator of choice, carrion flies.  So rather that use energy from the sun to make nutrients, it draws its nourishment from a host vine.

“You can infer from the standpoint that these animals and plants that we feature are extant, that of course, these adaptations work, because otherwise, they would have long been consumed and those genes would have been lost to the gene pool, and those critters wouldn’t be around,” Webster said.

“Amazing Species: Life at the Limits” is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History through July 9.

To hear Dan Polletta’s conversation with Harvey Webster be listening Tuesday at 12:33 p.m. and 1:40 p.m. on Here and Now featuring The Sound of Applause on 90.3.

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