So you think you’re pretty tough, don’t you? You think you live on the razor’s edge of life? Well, compared to many creatures on this planet, you and I are soft. We like sunlight and water and we can’t get too cold or too hot or else we’ll die. But many creatures, called extremophiles, can live in downright hostile environments.
Extremophiles are pretty neat creatures. By studying extremophiles here on Earth, we get a better understanding of what kinds of life might exist way out in the cosmos. How cool is that?
Check out these 5 examples of extremophiles:
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This is basically what it sounds like: a snotty stalactite. But snottites are actually colonies of cave-dwelling extremophile bacteria that lives off volcanic sulfur, which, when combined with water, produces sulfuric acid. The waste products of the bacteria have similar properties to battery acid. If they weren’t so cool they’d be incredibly nasty. They truly look like a bunch of snot clinging to rocks.
Giant tube worms, despite their name, are beautiful creatures. They live deep in the Pacific Ocean. Very deep. Up to several miles below the surface of the water. This means that they can survive extraordinary pressures. They are typically found around “black smokers,” or hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor that emit particles with high levels of sulfur-bearing minerals. Because of that, giant tube worms can withstand high levels of hydrogen sulfide.
We’d better be super glad that water bears – aka tardigrades – tend to be less than half a millimeter long, because they would otherwise dominate the galaxy. These micro organisms are basically the toughest things on the planet. Water bears are what we’d call a polyextremophile, which means they can survive in a variety of environments that we would consider completely unlivable. How, you may ask, can a mere water bear compete with your big guns? How about the ability to live without water or food for 120 years? Or the ability to withstand pressures six times greater than what is found in the oceans? Not convinced? Well they can also survive temperatures just above absolute zero and above boiling point. They can withstand radiation well above what humans can handle; like, hundreds of times higher. Water bears can even survive in possibly the most hostile to life environment of all: the vacuum of space. Don’t mess with water bears.
Like the water bear, loricifera are teeny tiny microscopic animals that live in marine sediment. There are 22 species in the loricifera phylum, but there are three species in particular that stand out. In the Mediterranean Sea, about 3,000 meters down, live these strange organisms. What makes them so strange? They live their entire lives without oxygen or sunlight. These little critters live in almost completely salt-saturated brine, which has the effect of not mixing with less salt-saturated water above it. They can live this way because, unlike us, they don’t rely on mitochondria for energy. Instead they use something called hydrogenosomes, which don’t need oxygen to create energy.
Let’s just call these guys icebugs, because that scientific name looks like the name of alien villain on Doctor Who. Anyway, icebugs are wingless insects. Usually, when we think of bugs we think of a warm climate. Well, at least that’s what I think of. But icebugs live in basically the opposite environment. They live in extremely cold locations – between about 34 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit – and usually at higher elevations. They aren’t quite as hardcore as our water ear friends, however. It’s possible to kill an icebug if the temperature gets too low.
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