Resource Type
Completion Time
Less than a week
Middle School and Up
Download and Share
Related Members
paper bags
2oz. plastic cups
disposable plastic transfer pipets
small petri dish or similar
stereo microscope
compound microscope
microscope slides
General Life Science
Evolution and Diversity
Organisms and Their Environments
Structure and Function


Students will collect tardigrades from lichen or moss cushions and then use a dichotomous key to identify the tardigrades by family.


Collect, capture, and observe tardigrades found in local lichen or moss cushions. Use a dichotomous key to identify tardigrades by family.

Lesson Preparation

  • Print copies of the Key to Limno-Terrestrial Tardigrade Families and Tardigrade Identification Worksheet in Lesson Materials.
  • Hydrate samples approximately 2 hours before beginning the identification lab.
  • Prior to the lab students need to be able to use stereomicroscopes and compound microscopes.
  • Prior to the lab students should have a basic understanding of dichotomous keys.


  1. Collect samples of lichen and moss. Samples can be collected by scraping the lichen or moss into a paper lunch sack using a butter knife. Collect a sample with a surface area approximately the size of a credit card. The moss or lichen samples can be stored for many months, or even years, until you are ready to look for the tardigrades. Not every sample will have tardigrades so it is good idea to collect multiple samples. More information about collecting tardigrades can be found in the Nov. 25th journal entry:
  2. Place enough of the sample to just cover the bottom of a small plastic cup (2 oz. cup). Approximately 2 hours before the lab begins hydrate the sample by placing enough spring water (distilled will also work) to completely submerge the sample.
  3. Use a disposable plastic transfer pipet to transfer liquid from the bottom of the plastic cup into a small petri dish (35mm) or similar container (the lid may work better than the dish because it has less depth). Most tardigrade species will be easiest to spot with a light source from above against a dark background. The bottom of the petri dish can be painted with black enamel paint. Systematically search through the dish with a stereomicroscope using 20-30x magnification.
  4. Tardigrades will need to be transferred to a microscope slide for identification. To observe live tardigrades at higher magnification you can transfer them to a drop of water on a depression slide. To make a permanent microscope slide, transfer tardigrades to a drop of mounting media (Hoyer’s mounting media or polyvinyl alcohol mounting media). Transfer tardigrades to microscope slides using an Irwin loop. A fine tipped pipet may be used in lieu of an Irwin loop.
  5. Observe tardigrades at 100-400x with a compound microscope. Use the dichotomous key to identify tardigrades to family.
  6. Students will fill out the assessment form with the name of the family of tardigrade they found. They will list the characteristics their tardigrade has that led to their identification.


Tardigrades have the ability to form a structure called a tun and enter a state called cryptobiosis. While in their tun, tardigrades are extremely resistant to harsh environmental conditions (e.g. pressure, temperature, radiation). Students can design experiments to explore cryptobiosis and resistance to extreme environmental conditions. Tardigrades can be left in a depression slide without a coverslip until they dry out and form a tun. The dried tardigrades can be exposed to extreme conditions (e.g. freezing temperatures or UV radiation). Alternatively, samples of lichen or moss that contain tardigrades can be exposed to extreme conditions prior to rehydration and then survival rates can be compared to control samples.


  • Kinchin, I. (1994). The Biology of Tardgrades. Portland press, London, pp. 186.
  • Miller, W.R. (1997). Tardigrades: Bears of the Moss. The Kansas School Naturalist, Vol43(3), pp. 1-16.
  • Schram, M. D., & Davison, P. G. (2012). Irwin Loops—A History and Method of Constructing Homemade Loops. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 115(1/2), 35-40. doi:10.1660/062.115.0106
  • Key to Limno-Terrestrial Tardigrade Families in Lesson Materials


Tardigrade Identification Worksheet


Josh Heward (josh.heward [at]

Standards Other

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) - Middle School Life Sciences

MS-LS4 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity

  • MS-LS4-2 Apply scientific ideas to construct an explanation for the anatomical similarities and differences among modern organisms and between modern and fossil organisms to infer evolutionary relationships.
  • Crosscutting Concepts: Science assumes that objects and events in natural systems occur in consistent patterns that are understandable through measurement and observation. (MS-LS4-1, MS-LS4-2)

This program is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed by this program are those of the PIs and coordinating team, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.