The Science Behind the 'Star Trek' Tardigrade Is a Huge Relief

CBS All Access/Star Trek Discovery

The latest space creature to terrorize humans on Star Trek: Discovery bears an uncanny resemblance to a popular, real-life organism notorious for being hardy enough to traverse space without protection. Ripper, armed with four pairs of muscular, clawed limbs and tough, rounded body armor, is essentially a tardigrade — only blown up to a massive scale that’s far too enormous to be cute.

Fortunately, Ripper is also far too enormous to represent anything we’re ever likely to see in real life, even with the scientific manipulation suggested on the show.

In the show’s fourth episode, viewers discover that Ripper — who’s currently locked up in Captain Lorca’s freaky space zoo — isn’t a monster or alien at all. Rather, Ripper is a living example of a science experiment gone awry. There’s lots of weird science happening on the USS Glenn, and we’re led to believe that this weird science turned an innocent, usually-microscopic tardigrade into a hulking, human-consuming beast.

Ripper chowing down.

CBS All Access/Star Trek: Discovery

It’s not really clear what sort of science went down to make Ripper this way, but real-life scientists are certainly capable of making things bigger than they normally are through genetic engineering. Belgian Blue cows, for example, can be turned into hulking, literal beefcakes by taking out the myostatin gene from a cow embryo.

In theory, the genes that control tardigrade growth and size could be manipulated to achieve the same ends, although scientists haven’t pinpointed those genes on the tardigrade genome (which was sequenced in July) yet.

Ripper is essentially the same animal as this tardigrade, only less adorable.

The more important thing to consider, however, is why tardigrades evolved to be so tiny in the first place, and whether a tardigrade’s tininess is integral to survival and its extraordinary characteristics, which include the ability to survive extreme heat, extreme cold, space radiation, and even mass extinction events.

On COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson speculated that part of the reason tardigrades have survived through the millennia is because they’re so small that their predators — which include amoeba, worms, and even other tardigrades — simply didn’t see them. Ripper, for all its strength, couldn’t say the same for itself.

Tardigrades, AKA 'water bears' or 'moss piglets', are pretty cute when they're 0.5 mm in size.


There are other downsides to being so big. A similar giant-animal thought experiment played out in the movie Okja, which centered around “super pigs” that were eight feet tall and 13 feet long. In a previous interview with Inverse, University of Guelph animal management expert Robert Friendship, Ph.D., explained that being huge is rarely beneficial for an organism because it’s an enormous waste of energy.

A six-ton pig, he explained, would require an enormous amount of resources — land to grow on, and, more importantly, food to eat. In the wild, those kinds of demands are not easily met, which is why we don’t see dinosaur-sized animals roaming the earth. Tardigrades, which survive largely on fluids sucked from algae and plants, may have it easier than carnivores, but as the third Star Trek episode showed, Ripper seems to belong to a particularly meat-hungry species.

For what it’s worth, Ripper didn’t seem to run into any trouble finding food thanks to the tasty crew of the USS Glenn, and it apparently has a super-brain in addition to its super-body that allows it to calculate jumps through spacetime, so perhaps it’s better adapted to mitigate its own survival than a regular tardigrade would be. For its sake, we hope it uses that newfound intelligence to focus on the most important issue at hand: escaping humans who overestimate their ability to mess with nature.

If you liked this article, check out this video on Inverse’s review of Star Trek: Discovery.

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