June 14, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Rotifer Mocks Old-Age Credulity

This claim outdoes the Rip Van Winkle fable by four orders of magnitude.

In New Scientist, Michael Marshall reports, with a straight face, “Tiny animal revived after 24,000 years entombed in Siberian permafrost.” It’s a rotifer. It just sat there in the ice for 24,000 years?

The lifetime of a typical rotifer is measured in hours or days. These “wheel animals” have rapidly-moving cilia that give the impression of rotating wheels. They can reproduce sexually, or asexually by parthenogenesis. Bdelloid rotifers, like the one found in permafrost, live their short lives, reproduce, and are preyed upon by other small animals like copepods, tardigrades and fish. In wet soil, there can be a hundred thousand of them per square meter.

Micrograph of a rotifer.

Their lives are usually short, but some bdelloids can survive dessication for long periods. The record for reviving a dessicated rotifer is nine years, says Wikipedia. But thousands of years? One scientist is flabbergasted by the thought:

While simple organisms like bacteria can often survive millennia in permafrost, “this is an animal with a nervous system and brain and everything”, says Stas Malavin at the Pushchino Scientific Center for Biological Research RAS in Russia. It isn’t quite a record – nematode worms have purportedly been revived from permafrost after 30,000 years – but no rotifer has been known to endure for so long.

If the worm had “purportedly” lived for 30,000 years, nobody directly measured that. The time is inferred by assumptions about when the permafrost formed and how long it lasted without melting. Those assumptions rest on other assumptions about the age of the earth and the reliability of dating methods.

The researchers used accelerator mass spectrometry to date organic remains that were found with the rotifer. They were between 23,960 and 24,485 years old, suggesting the rotifer was frozen into the permafrost at the same time.

Atomic mass spectrometry, like most dating methods, will give the answer that the assumptions want; garbage in, garbage out. Another way to think about the claim is to ask how reasonable it is for a small animal with “a nervous system and brain and everything” (sex organs, sensory organs, ciliae, metabolism, locomotion) to survive the ravages of time. In 24,000 years, how many cosmic rays did the rotifer endure? How many radon particles hit it from below? Were there any thawing and refreezing episodes? Were there no predators in the ice? How did this rotifer get into the ice quick enough to freeze before any predators found it? Do the scientists know what they are talking about?

It isn’t clear how they do it, according to Malavin. In recent years, it has become clear that freeze-tolerant organisms have a multitude of survival mechanisms, not just one, and they don’t all use the same ones. “The mechanisms are surprisingly poorly known, I would say,” says Malavin.

Other scientists were astonished that 2,200-year-old date palm seeds were able to sprout and grow (see Evolution News, June 4). That claim can be checked by history. Would that have been possible 10 times that period?

Marshall mentions other things that scientists don’t know about this rotifer:

  • They don’t know how long rotifers could live in ice.
  • They don’t know if the metabolism stops or just runs very slow.
  • They don’t know how soon radiation would damage the DNA beyond a tipping point.
  • They don’t know how it would survive without an energy source – food.

At a glance, it seems incredible to believe that this tiny animal could survive a decade in permafrost, let alone 2,400 decades. Predictably, all the science news sites echoed the claim without any critical analysis of the assumptions involved.

In evolutionary speculations, based as they are on moyboy assumptions, the age comes first, then the story. They think that anything is possible if you give it enough time. Those not bound to moyboy assumptions might see this as credulity gone wild.

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