08/09/2019

How ‘Moss Piglets’ Invaded The Moon

12:00 minutes

a microscopic view of an animal that looks like a cross between a rollie-pollie and a bear
A tardigrade (informally known as a waterbear). Credit: Shutterstock

Perhaps you’ve heard the news—there is now life on the moon! It just so happens to be the result of an accident. Back in April, the Israeli aerospace company Space IL was set to land the first private spacecraft on the moon. But minutes before touchdown, the lunar lander crashed, spilling its payload onto the moon’s surface, which included thousands of tardigrades. These nearly indestructible organisms can survive in very low pressure and low temperature environments, like those in space.

Science journalist Eleanor Cummins joins Ira to discuss the lunar moss piglet invasion. Plus, one man’s tweet about feral hogs has gone viral, but are they a real problem? They talk about how feral hogs are a growing and costly concern throughout the southern U.S. 

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Segment Guests

Eleanor Cummins

Eleanor Cummins is a freelance science journalist based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Perhaps you’ve heard the news by now. There is life on the moon, just so happens to be caused by an accident. 

Back in April, the Israeli Aerospace Company, SpaceIL, was all set to land the first private spacecraft on the moon. But minutes before touchdown, the lunar lander crashed, spilling its payload onto the moon’s surface, which included those very hardy tiny tardigrades. Here to tell us about how we got there, what the first water bears on the moon mean, and to give us a rundown of other short subjects in science, science journalist Eleanor Cummins. Welcome to Science Friday. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Thanks so much for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: So how did we get a lunar invasion of tardigrades? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Right, so as you said, back in April, SpaceIL accidentally crashed their lander on the moon. Their main payload was human knowledge. They were bringing things like books and Wikipedia pages. But they also had this sort of surprise payload, these tardigrades. 

So as you may remember, tardigrades are these really incredible microanimals. They have eight legs and segmented bodies. And they seem to survive like literally anything. 

We found them at very low pressure, at very high pressure, in extreme heat and extreme cold. They’ve even been to space before, and some of them lived. So they’re pretty incredible animals. And now they seem to be on the surface of the moon. 

IRA FLATOW: So the $64 question– could it be that these tardigrades are still alive or in hibernation somehow? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: So tardigrades were sent up dehydrated. They have this ability to sort of shrivel up and, effectively, turn into glass at a cellular level. And so that’s how they were delivered to the moon. It is entirely possible that they are still alive. We’ve been able to rehydrate tardigrades after years in a dehydrated state. So if anyone ever gets the chance to do that, they may spring back to life. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, they’re not going to bring them back, are they? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: I don’t think they have any plans to go back and get them. 

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] This is kind of cool stuff. But the whole policy is, in space exploration, is trying not to litter other planets with our biome or anything that we bring up there. But that’s been broken years ago, hasn’t it? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, this was totally legal for them to do, which may be surprising to a lot of people. NASA classifies these celestial bodies according to the priority of concern for contamination. So on Mars, we think that it may have the potential to have its own life. And it could hold other life in the future, so we have to be really careful about what we bring there. 

But the moon, we’re pretty sure, doesn’t have any of its own life and probably couldn’t harbor any other life. So it’s kind of a free for all. These tardigrades are definitely not alone. They’re up there with a lot of Apollo 11 poop among other biological matter. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s been talked about a lot, the 50th anniversary. Never mind, we won’t go there. Something almost as wild is that there’s some news floating around the internet about feral hogs this week. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, so this was a viral Twitter sensation. Basically, a guy responded to a sort of politically charged tweet about gun control with a question asking how he could kill, quote, 30 to 50 feral hogs that were reportedly running amok on his property and scaring his children. And it became this meme where people were quoting 30 to 50 feral hogs and putting all of these videos together. 

But it’s actually a really serious issue. In the United States right now, there are an estimated 7 million of these feral hogs in 35 states. They’re concentrated in the southeast. While they don’t really like interacting with humans, they’re definitely dangerous. 

But worst of all, they’re ecologically disastrous. They will eat anything they can get to. And they like to root up plants, so they’ll just totally clear out an agricultural area or wildlife. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, wow, is there a problem– the danger they might spread everywhere, go all over the place? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: They’re already pretty much everywhere. Basically, back in the 1500s, colonies started bringing over domesticated pigs. And then in the 1900s, game hunters started stalking wild boar. And those two animals combined into these wild feral pigs that we have all over the US today. They’ve been spotted throughout the lower 48. And they are posing a really big problem, which is why the US Department of Agriculture wants to go after them. 

IRA FLATOW: So these hogs are not indigenous to the United States. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: No, not at all. 

IRA FLATOW: They’re brought over by European settlers. Where are they mostly now concentrated? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: They’re in the southeast. And that’s where people really like to hunt them. So in Texas, for example, people go out and hunt about 30,000 of these hogs every year, which sounds like a big number until you consider that Texas has an estimated 2 million of these animals running around. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, and so is there any program to try round them up or to take care of them somehow? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, so earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture decided to fund a pilot program to sort of figure out how they could contain them. And they’re trying a bunch of different strategies. One is to take helicopters out, locate a group of feral hogs, and then shoot them all down. Another is called the Judas Pig Strategy, which is where, if you find a loner pig, you strap a GPS device to its body. And then when it returns to its group, the proverbial 30 to 50 feral hogs, you can track them all down and kill them. 

IRA FLATOW: So this a mass hunt going on. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Absolutely. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, well, let’s move up to something different. Scientists are taking a second look at some dinosaur bones from South Africa. We’re always interested in dinosaur bones. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, so this is really exciting. Back in 1978, some scientists classified a bunch of bones as Massospondylus, which is a really common dinosaur in southern Africa. They were like 20 feet tall, mostly herbivores, very cool. 

But British scientists were recently looking through those museum collections, and they thought something was kind of off. They found this one skeleton, a skull, specifically, that was really boxy and compressed whereas Massospondylus tends to have a sort of elongated skull. And they were like, you know, we need to look into this. And in a new paper, they determined that it’s actually a new species, which is called Ngwevu Intloko in which in the local Xhosa language means gray skull, so a new species just hiding in plain sight. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, we know the fossil record. It gets re-examined all the time. What is so special about this case? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: So the really exciting thing is that this actually is, not only a new species, but they think it’s a new genus. And what that means, as you probably remember, a genus is a higher order of taxonomy. And so it means that there could be more species underneath this genus just like anywhere Ngwevu Intloko. So now they’re trying to reconsider a bunch of different pieces of Massospondylus and wondering if these might be reclassified as an entirely new kind of dinosaur. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, that is kind of exciting and unusual, isn’t it? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Definitely. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, moving on, there was a really sobering study out this week that showed that more than 1,500 people have been killed in the last 15 years for defending their environment. Tell us about that. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, this was definitely, I think, surprising to a lot of people and very troubling. So a new study in nature sustainability reports that, between 2002 and 2017, an estimated 1,500 plus people were killed for defending their environment, so that means trying to stop things like dams or logging and defending natural resources. And that’s actually more in that same time period than the number of service members from the United Kingdom and Australia who were killed abroad in war zones in the same period, which means that environmental advocacy is more dangerous than anyone really thought. 

IRA FLATOW: Tell us. Give us some details on this. Who are these people? Why is it so dangerous? What were they defending? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: So the people involved are actually really widely varied. Many of them are activists. But there have also been killings of journalists and lawyers who have been involved in environmental issues. It really seems like, in some areas, if you go up against the wrong people, no matter in what capacity, you put yourself at a risk. So it is something where you’re most at risk in countries that have sort of corruption or weak government. 

It’s highest in Central and South America. That’s where the most people have been murdered. And it’s not just these people on the picket lines. It’s really anyone involved in any capacity. And, well, they’re often killed, unfortunately, by the people who are doing the extractions, so miners, loggers, and sometimes even the police and military are involved in these crimes. 

IRA FLATOW: So we’re talking about advocates then like lawyers and journalists, as you say, people who are standing up for the environment. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Right. So Berta Cáceres is a really great example of this, unfortunately. So she was an indigenous Honduran activist, and she tried to stop a dam on sacred land. And she was brutally murdered by hitmen who were actually hired by the dam company because they felt that she was causing too many delays in their project timelines. 

IRA FLATOW: And so what might be– well, how can we mitigate this? What can researchers do? Or what can they suggest be done? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: So the suggestion here was basically that companies and countries have to be held accountable. So they found that only 10% of cases are actually pursued by the court, which is an extremely low percentage. And so basically, people who carry out these crimes feel a sense of impunity. They know that they’re not really going to be pursued for what they’ve done. So creating an example of, if you kill an environmental activist, you are going to be taken to court is what these authors were recommending in their paper. 

IRA FLATOW: Mhmm, there is one of my favorite meteor showers coming up. It comes up every August. It’s a great one. Coming back next week, tell us about that. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, the Perseids are back. So they come around every year. They’re one of the most beautiful and prolific meteor showers in the northern hemisphere. It’s really exciting. They’re going to be peaking on Monday, August 12th and Tuesday, August 13th. So you should definitely get some coffee, stay up late, and head out to a place with low light pollution because the show is on. 

IRA FLATOW: And this is kind of a fun event to have. You ever gone out and done this? This is really a fun thing to do. You go outside. You can lie down on the top of your car, the hood of your car, or you can get a chaise lounge out, lie down on your back, and watch the sky. It’s fun. It’s the right kind of temperature and everything. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, the temperature is going to be perfect for it in a lot of the Northern hemisphere. Yeah, and you just have to make sure that you give yourself time for your eyes to adjust because it definitely is difficult to look into that dark sky and see things. So give it about an hour, and then you should be in for a really good show. 

IRA FLATOW: And of course, it’s always a great time to look at the planets. You can see some great views of Jupiter and Saturn now. And speaking of the planets, I want to bring in one more bit of space news. Scientists think they found evidence of a tsunami on Mars. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah! 

IRA FLATOW: Is that right? 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: So yeah, we all know what the Mars looks like today. It’s red and dusty. But scientists have been debating for a really long time what it looked like about four billion years ago. So some think that there was once a giant ocean, and others think that it’s always been a pretty icy place in the northern hemisphere. 

But the people who think that there was an open body of water just got a big boost because scientists have identified a 75-mile-wide impact crater that looks a lot like the one in the Yucatan on Earth that triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, wow. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: And so they’re saying this looks like it crashed into an ocean and kind of reshaped the surface of the planet. 

IRA FLATOW: That is exciting. Thank you, Eleanor, great stuff. Eleanor Cummins, science journalist based in New York. Thanks again. Have a great weekend. 

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’re hopping on board an icebreaker in the Arctic to study summers in that rapidly warming region. We’ll be right back with the trip to the Arctic. Stay with us. We’ll cool off.

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About Katie Feather

Katie Feather is an associate producer for Science Friday and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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