Slow Life

Watch and savor this remarkable video by Daniel Stoupin. It shows tiny marine animals in motion — motions that are typically so slow that we would never notice, here enormously sped-up so that humans can appreciate them.

Slow Life from Daniel Stoupin on Vimeo.

I found it at this blog post by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of biology. He notes that some kinds of basic processes, like breathing, are likely common to creatures that live at all different timescales; but others, like reaching out and grasping things, might not be open to creatures in the slow domain. Which raises the question: what kinds of motion are available to slow life that we fast-movers can’t experience?

Not all timescales are created equal. In the real world, the size of atoms sets a fundamental length, and chemical reactions set fundamental times, out of which everything larger is composed. We will never find a naturally-occurring life form, here on Earth or elsewhere in the universe, whose heart beats once per zeptosecond. But who knows? Maybe there are beings whose “hearts” beat once per millennium.

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11 Responses to Slow Life

  1. Dr David McCormick says:

    Interestingly all species on Earth seem to be assigned roughly the same number more of heart beats. The smaller the species the shorter the life span but the greater the number of heart beats. The larger the species the longer the life span but the lower the number of heart beats. If biology is based around the biology of Earth then perhaps there is a universal life span based on heart beats

  2. Carl Merril says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Many plants have similar movements and there is a nice YouTube illustrating one example at:

  3. Hugh Mannfield says:

    Love this concept. It was the reason for all the trouble between the Titans and humans in my book “A Place to Embrace” If life exists on Saturn’s moon Titan, it will probably move very slowly. Explorers visiting Titan will probably understand this. The ones in my book don’t, at least not right away.

  4. José Jesus says:

    Very good and true.

  5. James Cross says:

    Movement and sensory functions in the smallest organisms are accomplished with flagella and cilia. The primary structural components of flagella and cilia and microtubules composed of tubulin. Interesting video of tubulin on this page:

    We see in the smallest organisms movement and sensory functions accomplished with a similar biochemical structure. Microtubules are found in the brain and part of the Penrose and Hameroff theory is that they have something to do with consciousness.

  6. bostontola says:

    Beautiful, and an important message about the ocean ecosystems.

    Good point above that plants interact on slow scales we’re just beginning to notice. They have sophisticated communication systems as well (chemical).

    Extremely slow life brings up the question, are there life forms at enormous scale that we haven’t recognized yet?

  7. James Cross says:


    “Extremely slow life brings up the question, are there life forms at enormous scale that we haven’t recognized yet?”

    Good question and I would be interested in other people weighing in on it.

    I think probably there are size limits to organic life based upon gravitation and the limits of biological structures to support mass. Possibly on planets with much less gravitation than Earth, we might find much larger life forms and on planets with greater gravitation, organisms would max out at smaller size. However, I would think it would be extremely hard to predict those limits since life seems to find ways of engineering solutions. I believe dinosaurs were able to reach large sizes because they actually had relatively light but strong bones.

    There also may be limits relating to coordination and speed of neural signal propagation. Parts of an organism too far apart may not be able to act in a coordinated fashion because signals do not arrive quickly enough.

    Of course, if we speculate about non-organic life, any of those limits might be easily broken.

  8. Steve says:

    Maybe not as slow as one heartbeat per millennium, but there are bacteria that reproduce once per century:

    In rock formations where energy sources and food are rare, bacteria have adapted by shrinking in size from a few microns to less than one micron. By using their reserves during periods of deprivation, they have permanently slowed down their metabolism. Their cell division occurs only once per century or less, whereas bacteria on the surface reproduce within a few minutes, a few hours, or at most a few months.

  9. Kasuha says:

    “Which raises the question: what kinds of motion are available to slow life that we fast-movers can’t experience?”

    If we agree that growth is also a kind of movement then my favorite is moving through a solid obstacle.

    I can imagine that in principle a tree can start growing on one side of a fence, grows through it, then the part on the original side somehow dies off, perhaps to a disease, and what remains has effectively passed through that fence.

  10. Avattoir says:

    Dr. McCormick – I’m cautious about the large room for confusing the notion of ‘universal’ standards with models for life forms that are so popular, because they hold so many advantages at certain scales at least, that they can give off the impression of universality. The ‘3 billions heart beats per beast’ generality seems to me something in this nature, a feature that’s so common it’s nearly ubiquitous, which, again, tends to leave the impression of being more fundamental instead of merely just more successful.

  11. Avattoir says:

    James Cross – Okay, but is a wildebeest or a dung beetle or a human more appropriately understood as a ‘single’ organic entity, or as a platform for a bunch of different life forms, billions or more, to carry on. I like to tell folks the way I seek me and my fellow humans is as mass transit vehicles for gut microbes.