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Water bear reading (2): "La vie des tardigrades" by R.-M. May (1948)

Well, it might be tiny and look slightly yellowish - but we love it. The tardigrade publication by Raoul-Michel May appeared as a paperback in a bizarre series by the famous French Gallimard publishing house. Other parts of the series were (titles translated by us):

-- "About the life of the oysters"
-- "About the life of the silk worm"
-- "About the life of the hummingbird"

And today, we do have Monty Python's Life of Bryan, that's the difference ...

[ "La vie des tardigrades" by Raoul-Michel May; title page ]   [ "La vie des tardigrades" by Raoul-Michel May; example page ]

The tardigrade booklet by Raoul-Michel May is really small - but definitely a collectible item. 


As an example we are reprinting table 29, which depicts the changes in the visual appearance of an Echiniscus tardigrade during desiccation. Please note that everything is printed in colour though the year 1948 was part of a rather miserable post-war period all over Europe.

The author illustrates in a thrilling manner how carnivore Milnesium tardigradum water bears are hunting rotifers and brutely sucking their bodies empty. As we have to respect May's copyright we would like to show one of our own photomicrographs documenting this criminal behaviour:

[ Macrobiotus sp. tardigrade with a rotifer partially sucked empty ]

Macrobiotus sp. tardigrade with a rotifer partially sucked empty (on the right hand side).
Image width ca. 200 µm.

The style and message of the book becomes becomes particularily evident in the chapter abut the controversial discussion of tardigrade revival which took place in France. According to May the scientific opponents decided in 1859 to have their controversy settled by the "Société de Biologie" in Paris. As a consequence a group of famous French biologists was formed (Broca, Balbiani, Berthelot, Brown-Séquard, Dareste, Guillemin and Robin). They discussed the pros and cons of tardigrade revival in 42 (!) plenary sessions. Finally the unanimous sentence was that the tardigrades and rotifers can return to active life even after complete desiccation in dry state.

Furthermore May explains why "blind" tardigrades (those without noticeable eye pigment) behave exactly like "tardigrades with eyes": though the black or red pigment might amplify the light intensity there is always an (invisible) sensory cell in close vicinity to the pigment. This cell is making up the function of the eye, no matter whether pigment spots are present or not.

Some further chapters are dealing with the remarkable properties of the tardigrade cell membranes which can be penetrated by water but at the same time protect against many other liquids like organic solvents and colorants.

The last chapter with its work recipees might look obsolete at first sight but it is interesting to note that May is recommending a spoon full of holes in order to remove the moss from its petri dish after the soaking of the moss. Of course this might be a working solution also in our 21st century.

Overall "La vie des tardigrades" can be strongly recommended to every tardigrade enthusiast. As it is written in French you will get it rather cheaply in all countries outside of France. So don't hesitate to buy it if you should come across one of those booklets in an antiquarian bookshop!


Raoul-Michel May: La Vie des Tardigrades. 121 pages, 40 tables and a bibliography. Gallimard, Paris 1948.

© Text, images and video clips by  Martin Mach  (webmaster@baertierchen.de).
Water Bear web base is a licensed and revised version of the German language monthly magazine  Bärtierchen-Journal . Style and grammar amendments by native speakers are warmly welcomed.

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