San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone, but, like Christmas in July, it’s left us a pile of presents to play with. One of the many gifts left at the base of the proverbial tree was a trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the upcoming sequel to Godzilla (2014).
King of the Monsters is the third film in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse, following Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island. The trailer suggests that Godzilla is one of several massive creatures called Titans who act as a sort of fail-safe for all life on earth. Soon, we see the Titans: Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and the three-headed King Ghidorah, frozen in blocks of ice, awaiting their inevitable resurrection. One can imagine them, living out their life cycle, awakening to reset the face of the world through violent destruction before falling into a long hibernation where they wait to be needed again.
The Meg, starring Jason Statham and Rainn Wilson, plays with similar themes. Instead of a fictional giant lizard, the characters in The Meg face off against a very real but very extinct creature, the megalodon. And these aren’t the first films to center on the idea of ancient creatures lying in wait and awakening to exact prehistoric vengeance on humanity. For example, John Carpenter’s The Thing also involves humanity discovering a monstrous organism frozen in the arctic ice. These stories play on some of humanity’s central fears, specifically our fear of removal from the peak of the food chain and the fear of the unknown past, and for good reason. These fears, it turns out, aren’t all that irrational.
The notion of an animal being frozen, falling into a long hibernation, and later awakening as if nothing had changed, presses the boundaries of what life is capable of, but it isn’t unprecedented. If life on Earth has taught us anything it’s that, as Dr. Ian Malcolm is fond of saying, life finds a way.
So how possible is it for an ancient creature to lie in wait, locked in the ice, for a chance to walk the earth again?
Any discussion of death-defying animals is incomplete without at least the mention of tardigrades. Commonly known as water bears, tardigrades are some of the heartiest creatures to ever walk, er swim, the earth. The microscopic creatures can survive just about every deadly environment we can dream up. Dehydration, high temperature, low temperature, radiation, the vacuum of space... no problem. While keeping most animals as pets require very specific parameters to be met, you’d have to actively try to kill a pet tardigrade, and even then, it’s highly likely you’d fail in your attempts at tardicide.
In 2015, a team from the University of North Carolina revived a tardigrade that had been frozen for 30 years. It not only went right back to adorably trolling its microscopic neighborhood, but it gave birth to 14 healthy babies. What makes it even more impressive is the fact that it wasn’t the first time. A previous team revived a tardigrade that had been frozen for nine years. These suckers just won’t die.
But they hardly hold the record for microscopic resurrections. In 2014, scientists discovered a massive (relatively speaking) virus frozen in the Siberian permafrost. Dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, it is the largest virus ever discovered, and dates to at least 34,000 years ago.
This microscopic critter was retrieved from an ice core sample 100-feet below the modern surface. Of course, the question of whether or not a virus is truly alive in the first place is one of serious debate. The status of viruses over time has been one of constant flux. At current, viruses are believed to exist in a gray area between the living and non-living. They cannot replicate on their own, but they do take aims to replicate through the use of other living cells. Regardless, the ability of Pithovirus sibericum to lie dormant for so many millennia, only to pick up where it left off without more than a second glance is truly impressive.
There is also concern about what this might mean for humanity down the line. While Pithovirus sibericum is not a threat to human beings as it hunts amoebas exclusively, there is some speculation that there may be other micro-organisms trapped in the permafrost waiting to be released, as a result of global climate change, that might have a significant impact on human populations. If those concerns bear fruit, we might come to find that the earth truly did have a fever to unleash... only on a much smaller scale than Legendary’s monsters.
Don’t let that fool you. These impressive feats of long-term hibernation are not solely the province of the incredibly small. Researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science discovered 70 squirrel burrows 20 - 40 meters beneath the permafrost. Some of these burrows contained hundreds of thousands of preserved seeds dating back 30,000 years.
David Gilichinsky, one of the scientists involved in the research, took samples of placental tissue from S. Stenophylla fruits found in the frozen burrows. He and his colleagues were able to successfully grow plants from the frozen fruit and were even able to make them blossom and produce a second generation.
The team noticed some differences when compared to modern examples of the same plant, mainly the production of more buds and slower rooting behavior, indicating specific adaptations beneficial to an ice age environment. Researchers hope to resurrect other species in hopes of increasing our understanding of natural selection by studying extinct flora in a laboratory setting.
Examples of life after freezing are present in the animal kingdom as well, and not just with regard to water bears. Animals have all kinds of strategies for weathering cold winters. Some migrate while others dig burrows underground. Some hibernate, falling into a sort of decreased metabolic state until their environment becomes more friendly.
Few animals go to more extreme lengths to survive the winter than wood frogs. Though “survive” might be the wrong word entirely. It’s pushing the definition of the word to even consider them alive. When temperatures drop to freezing, wood frogs freeze right along with them. When the process is complete, the body of the wood frog has no heart beat, no brain activity, no respiration, nothing.
When temperatures warm up in the spring, the wood frog thaws, and resumes its life of eating bugs and hopping around, having cheated death.
Wood frogs are able to do this thanks to specialized proteins in the frogs’ blood. These nucleating proteins cause most of the water in the frogs’ cells to get sucked out, rather than forming damaging crystals inside. Meanwhile, the frogs’ liver creates glucose and stuffs the cells full of it, preventing them from collapsing.
This one-two punch ensures the frogs don’t suffer from frostbite and their tissues remain undamaged even while they’re frozen solid. According to Kenneth Storey, a biochemistry professor at Carleton University, "Once the heart starts, it pumps the blood around the animal and the animal starts to revive, then it starts to gulp, then it starts to breathe, then it starts to hop away. So it takes a little while to reactivate after you've been frozen down."
It’s clear that, while freezing temperatures are fatal to humans, that isn’t a foregone conclusion for other types of life. Nor does the passage of massive amounts of time necessarily mean a death sentence, so long as the tissues are sufficiently preserved.
Perhaps we should reconsider the way we treat our environment and each other, lest giant creatures from the frozen deep emerge to settle our karmic bill on our behalf.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters arrives in theaters May 31, 2019. The Meg hits theaters on August 10, 2018.