New Tardigrade Sculpture

New water bear sculpture fronts the Bohart

By Kathy Keatley Garvey

Artist Solomon Basshoff and Bohart Museum of Entomology director Lynn Kimsey stand by the concrete sculpture crafted by Basshoff. Solomon Basshoff/Courtesy photo

You can’t miss it.  And it’s perfect for a “bear hug.” 

A newly installed water bear, or tardigrade, sculpture at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis promises not only to be a cuddly campus landmark but it may be the world’s only sculpture of its kind. 

The huge sculpture, in front of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, anchors the entrance to the Bohart Museum, which houses one of the world’s largest tardigrade collections.

 “I’m not aware of any other statue of a water bear anywhere,” said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and a UC Davis professor of entomology. 

A crew installed the concrete sculpture, the work of artist Solomon Bassoff of Faducci LLC, North San Juan, at 7 a.m. Feb. 3 in a half-hour project. 

It weighs 2,112 pounds and measures 6 feet long and nearly 3 feet high. In real life, the water bear is microscopic. The adults usually range from 0.3 to 0.5 mm in length.

“I was so excited to see it on the truck,” said Kimsey, who launched the project via a GoFundMe account two years ago. “Looking at pictures is one thing but the real thing was awesome and it’s really fun to see it in front of the building. The whole business only took about half an hour. They had to first move two concrete garbage containers, which probably weigh 1,000 pounds each.

 “The installation is complete except for signage,” she said. “We’ll be putting up a plaque explaining what it is and major donors. It stands to get even more over the next three years.” 

Bassoff, who creates sculptures in concrete, steel and mosaic from his studio in the Sierra foothills, said he sculpted the tardigrade with a “steel armature (coated to prevent corrosion), pigmented hand-sculpted concrete and bronze claws. It was fun and amazing to learn more about this amazing creature.”

The Bohart Museum’s tardigrade collection includes some 25,000 slide-mounted specimens.  “The water bear is one of the most peculiar and indestructible groups of animals known,” Kimsey said. “The microscopic and nearly indestructible tardigrade can survive being heated to 304 degrees Fahrenheit or being chilled for days at -328 F. And, even if it’s frozen for 30 years, it can still reproduce.” 

They belong to their own phylum, the Tardigrada (meaning “slow steppers”), with more than 1,500 described species. “Tardigrades can survive high pressures of more than 1,200 atmospheres found in the bottom of the abyss,” Kimsey said. “They can tolerate 1,000 times more ionizing radiation than other animals.”

The barrel-shaped creature with eight pudgy legs inspired German zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze (1731-1793) to describe them as “kleiner Wasserbär,” or “little water bears.”

Tardigrades are easiest to find on lichens and mosses, Kimsey says, but they can also be found on beaches, in the subtidal zone, freshwater sediments, soil, hot springs and even on barnacles. They’ve been found “high in the Himalayas to down in the deep sea and even in the interior of Antarctica.”

They mostly feed on plants or bacteria “but some are predators on smaller tardigrades,” Kimsey related. “They use the stylets in their tubular mouth (snout) to pierce “individual plant or bacterial ells or small invertebrates.”

“Tardigrades are awesome,” she said. “They can dry out completely and then become immortal. In fact, SpaceIL may have left thousands of dried tardigrades on the moon when it crashed (in 2019).”

Why is the water bear so indestructible? In research published in 2016, geneticist Takekazu Kunieda and his colleagues from the University of Tokyo found that it expresses a tardigrade-specific protein that binds itself to DNA. This acts like a “shield against x-ray radiation, preventing the DNA from snapping apart,” according to an article published in Gizmodo. 

Kimsey credited former Bohart Museum scientist Bob Schuster with launching and compiling the current tardigrade collection. The Bohart is now gearing up for more specimens. Kimsey is part of a three-year, $256,849 National Science Foundation research grant, “Cross Departmental Development of an Automated Species Identification System for the Phylum Tardigrada Found on Birds,” awarded to her and five faculty members from Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. All tardigrades collected by Baker University’s faculty and students will find a new home in the Bohart Museum.

“Our part in all this is to act as a repository for all of the specimens collected,” Kimsey said. “We have one of the four largest collections of tardigrades in the world.”

Solomon Basshoff and fellow artist Domenica Mottarella, who formed Faducci in 2002, are known throughout the country for their whimsical emotive sculptures, commissioned for public art installations and private collections. Locally, they created the Davis Central Park Gardens’ children’s play sculpture, “Bellapede.” Installed in 2010, it is shaped like a monarch caterpillar.

Just like “Bellapede,” the water bear sculpture should be a magnet for children and their families,” Kimsey said. “Tardigrades are really popular with kids in part because of their representation in the movies “Ant-Man” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Star Trek” and “Family Guy.”  

The Bohart Museum, in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building, houses a global collection of nearly 8 million insect specimens. It also houses a live “petting zoo” of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects and tarantulas, as well as a year-round — and now online — gift shop. The insect museum is currently closed to the public due to COVID-19 pandemic precautions.

But the tardigrade sculpture beckons all.

A close-up of the water bear (tardigrade) sculpture that fronts the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, home of one of the world’s largest tardigrade collections. The 2112-pound, 6-foot-long concrete sculpture is the work of Solomon Basshoff of Faducci LLC, North San Juan, Calif. In real life, the critter is microscopic.
Lynn Kimsey/Courtesy photo

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