Unity College Students Are Putting Biodiversity Loss and Global Warming Into Focus
Alison Vilag of Berrien Springs, Michigan, is a junior majoring in environmental writing and media studies at Unity College in Unity, Maine.
Just a microscopic invertebrate, tardigrades are death-defying organisms that sound like Sci-Fi fodder.
“They’re extremely hardy little creatures,” says Kyle Pisano, a sophomore studying marine biology at Unity College. “They’re resistant to radiation, dehydration, they can survive the vacuum of space. They can survive boiling water … they can basically become indestructible.”
Tardigrades’ invisibility trumps their invincibility, though. Few of us are familiar with the animal, and Pisano says they’re woefully under-researched.
So, tardigrade fans are excited that the organisms are getting their turn in the spotlight. Rather than starring in science fiction, tardigrades are featured at Life at the Limits, an ongoing exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The display reveals animals that thrive in extreme conditions.
A 12-foot tardigrade model graces the exhibit as a mascot of sorts but, as tardigrade identification can be quite complicated, somewhere in the construction, a discrepancy occurred in the mascot model’s claw composition. Unity College students noticed the claw error, and it was corrected by museum officials.
Why are tardigrades—not to mention accurately portrayed tardigrades—important?
“Loss of biodiversity is one of the most obvious and critical issues that is occurring on our planet right now,” said Emma Perry, associate professor of Marine Biology who spearheads tardigrade research at Unity College—"America's environmental college," where she teaches a course in invertebrate zoology.
“We really need to know what we have," Perry said. "We can’t document a loss if we don’t know how to identify it, so there’s an international need for people with the skills to identify organisms.”
Students in Unity’s program get those skills as Perry’s class gives them the opportunity to regularly collect, mount, and identify tardigrades.
When they caught wind of Life at the Limits through a Buzzfeed article, they were delighted.
Naturally, Perry and her students wanted the exhibit to be accurate, so when they noticed the claw discrepancy, they decided to contact the museum.
“If the public’s seeing it, we want it to be right. And as a natural history museum, they want it to be right too,” said Natalie Ameral, also a marine biology student at Unity.
Perry contacted Dr. Mark Siddall, one of the exhibit’s curators. She conveyed her excitement that tardigrades were finally getting some museum-quality love, then asked Siddall if there was any chance the model could be corrected before the exhibit opened.
“Museums are a critical player in our study of biodiversity,” says Perry. “Any way we can work with them is all for the greater good.”
The class got an “an awesome response” from the museum, Ameral said. “They were really open to our critiques and wanted to make changes so that it would be correct. It was really cool.”
The museum re-created the tardigrade claws in light of Perry’s suggestions. As an unexpected bonus, Siddall also invited the class down for a private tour of the exhibit.
Ameral describes tardigrades as microscopic organisms that “people never really think about and never really have to think about.”
Like most students, she knew little about tardigrades before she enrolled at Unity.
That changed quickly, though. Ameral currently assists Perry as they create an identification key for a specific group of tardigrades. Perry's passion for tardigrades is legendary on campus, and apparent from the moment you enter her office and witness cases upon cases of tardigrade slides.
Tardigrades are tiny (.039 of an inch on average) invertebrate organisms and, despite their small size, are big enough to be seen using a low-power microscope.
More than 1,000 species of tardigrades exist globally and occupy all of earth’s major ecosystems. They are found all across the globe and can thrive in some of the most hostile conditions on Earth, from the deepest Maine lakes to the vacuum of outer space.
Scientific tardigrade research is important because, according to the Consortium of European Taxonomy Facilities (CETAF), “biodiversity loss, global warming and other environmental issues need natural history collections and related expertise as sources of knowledge and for reference.”
One might think that an animal this resilient and widespread would be well-studied and widely-known. Actually, they’re shrouded in enigma.
Why is there still so much to learn about tardigrades?
Ameral and Pisano say it’s not just the Lilliputian size that renders tardigrades easily-overlooked; the mystery of where humans and tardigrades intersect also factors.
Until enough evidence accumulates to demonstrate how tardigrades affect human life, it’s hard to get research money, says Pisano: “Unfortunately, people don’t tend to care about what doesn’t affect them.”
Under Perry’s tutelage, Unity students are well equipped for fundamental scientific research on the species. They have specific objectives and a sound understanding of techniques for researching tarigrades which include observing, measuring, sorting, codifying and discovering.
Currently, students are looking at tardigrades that live on the apple trees at different distances from the central Maine campus, as well as working on samples from the Hemlock Ecosystem Management Study plots.
“This is a really unique project that I would not have gotten at a bigger school or probably wouldn’t have learned about anywhere else,” says Ameral. “It’s a very special opportunity that we have here.”
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How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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