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Do any real animals enter a death-like slumber, Lovecraft-style?

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Aug 19, 2020, 7:03 PM EDT (Updated)

Lovecraft Country, a new series from HBO, adapted from the Matt Ruff novel of the same name, re-examines H.P. Lovecraft's famed mythos through the lens of the 1950s. Specifically, it mashes together two elements of Lovecraft’s legacy: his undeniable impact on genre fiction, and the equally undeniable fact that he was a racist.

The show follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) on a cross-country journey to search for his missing father. Such a journey would have ample terrors at the hands of mid-century American racism, even without the addition of eldritch horrors. Lovecraft’s most famous monsters were creatures from outside our reality, or beasts who were trapped within the earth or beneath the sea. They slept a death-like sleep, waiting for an opportunity to rise again. And, while racism is a horrifying and all-too-real part of society, at least there aren't any monstrous creatures lurking in a deep sleep, Shoggoth-style. Right?

INTERMITTENT ARRIVAL

Lovecraft’s terrors are known for lying in wait, keeping quiet long enough for humanity to forget all about them, before reappearing with a vengeance. They’re the sorts of things that break a person’s mind just to see them. Turns out, we’ve got a similar periodic visitor in the real world. And they’re known to drive people just as mad. Only they do it with sound.

Cicadas, winged insects with wide-set eyes, look a bit like the imagined Shoggoths, except they’re small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Cicadas of all types spend the majority of their lives underground in their nymph stage. It is only after several years that they emerge, mate, lay their eggs, and die. The length of their lives varies by species and even from one generation to the next, depending on environmental conditions. And different groupings operate on staggered schedules so that most cicada species emerge each year to pass on their genes to the next generation.

If all cicadas behaved in this way, it’s likely they wouldn’t be any more thought of than any other type of insect. But all cicadas don’t behave this way. There is a subset, known as periodical cicadas, which have longer than typical life cycles and emerge in a synchronized way. Every 17 years (or 13 depending on the species), billions of individuals crawl out of their underground homes and stage an invasion on parts of the United States, like some sort of micro-scale Pennywise.

These periodical cicadas are broken up into 15 broods that travel through this generational cycle together. This year, 2020 (because a pandemic and murder hornets weren’t enough to deal with), Brood IX will emerge in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. The last time they appeared was in 2003.

It isn’t clearly known why periodical cicadas behave in this way, rather than the more frequent way most members of their family do. Some scientists believe it’s a defense mechanism, meant to throw off predators by only appearing at far-flung intervals. Still, if the pressure to avoid predators was that intense, then why aren’t the majority of cicadas periodical? It’s likely there’s something else at play. There’s a lot about cicadas that remains unknown.

What we do know, is they unleash an unholy terror on the world whenever they arrive. Estimates indicate 1.5 million of them can inhabit a single acre once they’ve emerged, and their mating call is so loud it can push the limits of human hearing. The onslaught is apparently so overwhelming that early colonists thought they were suffering a biblical plague.

Then, just as quickly as they arrive, they return to their slumber for another 17 years.

SURVIVAL BY SUSPENDED ANIMATION

There are plenty of animals capable of falling into a suspended state when they encounter less than ideal circumstances. Famously, wood frogs and other frog species are capable of surviving harsh winters by freezing solid and thawing in the spring. As temperatures drop, they begin to convert stored sugars into glucose and pump it around the body. The evidence suggests this glucose (along with, potentially, urea) protects the frog’s cells from damage while it waits for spring.

Along relatively short, seasonal time frames, these tiny amphibians are effectively dead. Their hearts stop beating, their organs shrivel, and biological function ceases, only to start up again with the spring. But those frogs are amateurs, only dabbling with the dark arts of resurrection. The world featherweight champions of cheating death are tardigrades.

Also known as "water bears," tardigrades are famous for looking death in the eye and... not even laughing — just, like, shrugging and swimming away.

The eight-legged microscopic animals, which only loosely resemble bears, live just about anywhere on Earth and are capable of surviving all kinds of extremes. In experiments, tardigrades have survived incredibly high temperatures, radiation, pressures exceeding the deepest parts of the ocean, and the vacuum of space.

In 2007, tardigrades were strapped to the outside of a satellite for 10 days before being returned to Earth. Upon arrival, nearly 70 percent of them had survived the trip.

Tardigrades owe their incredible survival skills to what’s known as a tun state. Much like the aforementioned frogs, tardigrades achieve this state by expelling water from their bodies and replacing it with sugar. This protects their cells from damage while they wait for better times.

They also slow their metabolism down to 0.01 percent of normal, allowing them to remain in this state for years or decades before resuming their normal activities. Pretty impressive for an animal that normally only lives a few weeks.

In one extreme case, tardigrades that were collected from moss samples in the Antarctic were kept frozen at -20 degrees Celsius for more than 30 years. According to a paper published in the journal Cryobiology, the samples were then thawed and two individual water bears observed.

Slowly, over the course of several days, the tardigrades began to move, then eat, then reproduce. While one of them ultimately died about two weeks after being revived, the other made a full recovery from the tun state, laying a clutch of eggs. In addition, a previously deposited egg that had also been frozen for more than three decades hatched, developed into a full-grown tardigrade, and laid eggs of its own.

Tardigrades have also existed for approximately 600 million years — talk about elder. They check a few of the boxes for ancient slumbering gods. They just aren’t particularly terrifying.

A TRULY DEEP SLEEP

If you want to settle in for a really long nap, it helps to be a simpler life form. There’s considerable evidence from several different instances that certain plants and bacteria are capable of surviving in a desiccated state, usually owing to extremely cold temperatures, for thousands or even millions of years. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for researchers to scour the permafrost, looking for ancient plants and bacteria to study. Those conditions provide the perfect environment for preservation, allowing scientists to peer into the past.

That’s exactly what Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, a microbiologist from the University of Tennessee, was doing at the permafrost in Siberia. Vishnivetskaya studies microbes by drilling into the ancient ice and taking samples, hoping to find ancient microbes from eons past. After returning the samples to the lab and warming them up, she discovered more or less what she'd expected: single-celled organisms from more than 40,000 years ago.

That, in and of itself, isn’t all that surprising. After all, it’s possible bacteria can survive more than a million years in stasis, as mentioned above. What surprised Vishnivetskaya, and the scientific community, was the unexpected appearance of a relatively complex organism swimming in the ancient ice soup. She discovered nematodes older than civilization, older than written language, certainly older than any living animal we’d ever seen before.

There is, of course, skepticism among the scientific community about whether these nematodes were actually that old, and rightly so. As Carl Sagan was famous for saying, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and it’s possible the samples were contaminated with modern animals.

Vishnivetskaya, for her part, thinks that’s unlikely. She followed protocols for keeping the samples sterile and other scientists agree that, while incredible, it isn’t impossible for nematodes to survive in desiccation that long, based on what we know of them.

This revelation is further evidence of the resilience of life in surviving harsh conditions. And proof that under the right circumstances, creatures from beneath the surface of the world, from out of time, really can come back. It just turns out the old ones look less like cephalopod-faced abominations and more like really tiny worms.

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