It sounds like the plot from a cheese science fiction movie: Scientists unearth something that’s been buried in the frozen ground of the Arctic for tens of thousands of years and decide to warm it up a bit. The creature stirs as its cells slowly wake up from their long stasis. As time passes, the animal wakes up, having time-traveled 24,000 years thanks to its body’s ability to shut itself down once temperatures reached a certain low. It sounds too incredible to be true, but it is.
In a new paper published in Current Biology, researchers reveal their discovery of a microscopic animal frozen in the Arctic permafrost for an estimated 24,000 years. The creature, which would have lived in water during its previous life, was revived as the soil thawed. The discovery is incredibly important not just for the ongoing study of creatures found frozen in time here on Earth.
The tiny creature is called a bdelloid rotifer. These multicellular animals live in aquatic environments and have a reputation for being particularly hardy when it comes to frigid temperatures. They are obviously capable of surviving the process of being frozen and then thawed, and they’re not the only tiny animal to have this ability.
However, there is always the question of just how long an animal can be frozen before it can no longer be woken back up. If a creature can survive being frozen for a year, that doesn’t automatically mean that it can also survive being frozen for 10 years or 100, or in the case of the bdelloid rotifer, 24,000.
This discovery was made in Siberia, and it’s not the first time that frozen creatures have been pulled from the ground there and then woken back up. Tiny worms were also discovered in the frozen soil layer in the region not long ago and, once scientists had the opportunity to raise their temperature in a controlled environment, they sprung back to life.
There are always big questions about the safety of conducting research like this. When you’re unearthing something that has been frozen for tens of thousands of years there’s always the possibility that it carries some kind of disease that hasn’t been seen by humans before. If life on Earth today isn’t well-equipped to deal with an illness brought back to life by a frozen animal, it could trigger a truly catastrophic chain of events.
Researchers conducting this kind of work take precautions to ensure outbreaks don’t occur, and the creatures that come back to life from the frozen ground often don’t live long enough for containment issues to be much of a concern anyway. Still, it’s pretty wild to know that these animals are technically tens of thousands of years old but still alive and well.