Weird Places To Live
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
Just from personal experience, I’m an expert on this subject. I live on high plains at an altitude of 7,200 feet above sea level surrounded by a bowl of mountains which reach a height of 12,000 feet, a very dry environment with winter that gets down to -40 degrees F. and summer that occasionally (and mercifully briefly) reaches 90 degrees F. We have had several years of drought but, this year we have had several feet of snow and the hellish ice that results from the repeated thawing and refreezing. In other words, it is a bracing and stimulating climate. We have over 300 days of sun (according to the Chamber of Commerce)–an excellent antidote to those months-long dreary, overcast, rainy climes of the U.S. Pacific Northwest and part of the United Kingdom. Naturally, there are always tradeoffs; we usually get only occasional rain showers in late May and through June–but how glorious they are–and it is a special delight to go for a stroll, a refreshment for the spirit.
Another mixed blessing is the wind, sometimes gusting to 60 mph or even more but it does keep our air clean, our lungs robust, and teaches us how to keep our balance. Even better, we are ideally situated to produce energy through wind farms and already a sizeable pilot project exists about 70 miles north of Laramie.
Wyoming is a harsh, demanding, and starkly beautiful landscape with the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Park, the Beartooth Mountains, the Hot Springs of Thermopolis, the Snowy Range, and a stunning variety of wildlife–especially in the bars (I’m only half joking)–bears, moose, marmots, chipmunks, prairie dogs, bison, wolves, foxes, jack rabbits, antelope, white-tailed deer, eagles, hawks, hummingbirds, elk, sage grouse, porcupine, muskrats, beaver, swallowtail butterflies, hummingbird moths, MOSQUITOES (our State bird), dragonflies, damsel flies, rainbow trout, bighorn sheep, wild orchids (at least 3 different kinds that I’ve found), the wonderfully weird plant called “elephant’s head”, kestrels, chickadees, snow lilies, fireweed, mallows, dung beetles, unicorns (just checking to see if you’re awake), and Tyrannosaurus (if you’re interested in fossils). Hordes of tourists visit our State every year, but when they hear our stories about winter temperatures of -125 F, winds of 180 miles an hour, and wild herds of animals invading our towns and cities, they decide that Wyoming is a nice place to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live here–and we heartily agree with them. Wyoming is geographically a large state and we have lowest per capita population in relation to size of any state in the country–less than 500,000 people in an area of 97,818 square miles and we’re adamant about keeping it that way. So, this is a wonderfully weird place to live but, we want to share it only with those who can also appreciate, respect, and preserve its special qualities.
At my advanced age of 293 (O.K., O.K. 278), there are many environments that I have no interest in living in–deserts, the Arctic, the Antarctic, large congested cities, small congested cities, any place with high humidity, any place that’s overcast for long periods–I could go on and on, but you get the point.
So, what does this ecologically neurotic confession have to do with natural history or microscopy? Well, believe it or not , there are organisms that are even fussier about their environments than I am and others that thrive in conditions that we humans would find not only insane, but lethal.
We generally regard oxygen as a good thing, a necessary item for our survival, but there are organisms for whom oxygen is a poison. Strict anaerobes die off in even low levels of oxygen. From our anthropocentric perspective, we are perplexed by organisms that don’t have oxygen bars with dozens of different scents–jasmine oxygen, gardenia oxygen, lemon oxygen, sardine oxygen (for the Norwegians), and on and on. Too often we don’t consider that there are organisms so radically different from us that they are able to survive and even thrive in environments so alien to our conception of “living conditions” that we have enormous difficulty even imagining such creatures.
Some organisms have life modes that we envy and which inspire us to attempt imitations–gliding, parasailing, hang-gliding to allow us to feel for a brief time like birds transcending our earthbound heaviness, our “spirit of gravity” and to exult in being a creature of the air. And, no, flying in a Boeing 747 or the Concorde is not in the same physical, metaphysical, emotional, or spiritual category! It is the expression of desire to free ourselves of our condition and that sense was brilliantly captured by Gerard Manley Hopkins in this poem Windhover:
“I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”
As creatures with incredible imaginations, we often long to be something other than we are or more than we are, but those imaginings are virtually always cast in Romanticisms–the fantasy of flight, the desire to plumb the depths of the oceans like the great whales, the passion to explore great crystal-lined caves, or even to burrow through the earth to discover new macro- and micro-worlds.
We don’t, however, fantasize about living in dung heaps, scalding thermal pools, near-freezing seas or ponds, nor in caves which remain eternally in darkness, nor in the sulfurous slime of silt-choked lakes, yet in each of these environments and others even less compatible with our constitution as organisms, there are life forms which have adapted, once again demonstrating nature’s endless and mindless experimentation. Our reaction to the extreme “otherness” of these creatures and their environments: 1) We have the previously-mentioned Romantic fantasies which can raise us to poetic heights and ecstatic visions. 2) We have the brute facts which are certainly not “the stuff that dreams are made of” but, to a curious and probing mind can prove fascinating, informative, even enlightening. And 3) there are fantasies regarding extra-terrestrial life forms which, usually in short stories, novels and films, turn out to be threatening, nasty beings bent on exploiting or destroying us. In fact, what few hints we have about what life might be like in our own solar system suggest that anything we might encounter would probably be no more advanced than bacteria. The most likely candidates for finding life forms or fossil evidence of such are the moon, Mars, and maybe Europa. We know now that there is water on the moon and Mars, and apparently some sort of liquid subsurface reservoir on Europa. Virtually all biologists think that an environment must have, or at least at one time have had, water for life to exist or have existed. Mercury is too hot and chemically hostile to sustain life as we know it and most of the other planets and moons are too cold and/or have such poisonous atmospheres that they don’t seem to be places that are very high on the list of probables for ETLHs (Extra-Terrestrial Life Hunters).
Nonetheless, the more we learn about the bizarre adaptations of life forms on Earth that enable them to live in environments which would be unbelievably hostile to us encourages us, in our less stringently rational modes, to imagine life forms of a sort so radically different from those we know as to be barely recognizable were we to encounter them. Interestingly, this problem is not all that recent but, relatively recent discoveries have certainly made us much more aware of the extremes which life forms can tolerate. Imagine organisms to which oxygen is a poison, others for which methane is a “breath of fresh air”, organisms which metabolize sulfur compounds and are not dependent on photosynthesis, creatures which live in salt caves, others in brine pools, yet others in highly acidic or alkaline environments. Recent experiments have shown that certain micro-organisms can be “trained” to metabolize arsenic and we know from the unfortunate examples of oil spills that there are some bacteria which can break down crude oil. There are even some micro-critters and, interestingly, certain insects, that have shown a relatively high tolerance for some kinds of radiation. Now we just need to find some species that loves to eat radioactive cesium, uranium, and plutonium and render them harmless. If a team of scientists could produce such organisms in the laboratory, they would not only unquestionably win a Nobel Prize, but solve some critical problems for the human race in terms of dealing with the production of clean energy and radioactive waste.
Whatever this very strange phenomenon is that we call “life”, it is evident that it has exceptional capacities to adapt and thrive in extraordinary environments. I have found mold growing in 50% isopropyl alcohol. Many of us have had the experience of discovering lichen growing on bare rock and I have even found it growing on the asphalt shingle roofing of a storage shed.
One summer, I was collecting water samples in lakes with high concentrations of alkaline salts and a colleague of mine at the university kindly agreed to do a chemical analysis of a sample. What it revealed was very high levels of calcium, magnesium, phosphates, chlorides, and carbonates. Clearly, these data suggest that this is not going to be an environment that leads to the development of micro-resorts for wealthy, vacationing protists. Nonetheless, I found an abundance of bdelloid rotifers, hypotrichs, and an interestingly eccentric genus of amoeba, Raphidiophrys which from time to time form “street gangs”, that is 3,4,5,6 of them will bunch together using their long acicular (needle-like) pseudopodia to form an efficient cooperative “net” for capturing prey, then after sating themselves, they separate and go back to being individual thugs looking for other organisms to mug and devour.
I mentioned that I live in a rather chilly environment for a significant part of the year and so, of course, do the micro-organisms which I study. So, at the first hint of spring–which aquatically speaking–is the melting of the ice around the edges of the lakes and ponds, even though further out there may still be large masses of ice—I head out with nets and jars to collect samples of water just barely above freezing and thereafter, it takes my hands 2 or 3 days to warm up. Why bother, you might ask? The answer is simple; at this time of year under these conditions, there are organisms that don’t appear at any other time of the year; in other words, their life cycles are dependent upon a rather severe temperature gradient.
There are some locations that remain fairly stable in the late spring, the summer, and the early autumn and by this I mean that one can count on them to have populations of specific organisms at particular times of the year providing the weather and environmental conditions remain fairly constant. For example, there was a small beaver pond where in late spring and early autumn, I could almost always find Volvox in abundance. Unfortunately, over the past 2 decades, the unscrupulous trapping of the beaver has virtually destroyed a whole chain of ponds which used to be a marvelous collecting site for micro fauna and flora.
In the high plains to the south, I know of several spots where there are depressions filled with dried, cracked mud which vary in size from small roadside ponds to medium-sized lakes when there is water. They are very shallow and, as a consequence, do not sustain themselves beyond a few weeks in the spring if there is sufficient snow melt and runoff to fill them. Then they explode with life–the dominant form being the bizarre ancient-looking “tadpole shrimp” which looks somewhat like a miniature horseshoe crab.
They feed ferociously on micro-plankton, grow quickly, and produce, enormous numbers of eggs which are highly resistant as they must be to survive drying, freezing, and heat perhaps for several years until the next spring thaw creates the right conditions for their resuscitation .
Years ago, I used to hike in a place with marvelous rock formations, a place called Vedawoo which the Indians regarded as sacred–quite understandably because of the formations themselves and the almost constant shifting of light which make it seem that one is in a place that is continually transforming itself. There are declivities in the rocks where water collects and, in the spring, one can find those splendid little aquatic acrobats, the fairy shrimp, which are taxonomically related to the tadpole shrimp. These declivities are also demanding and temporary environments and so again, rapid growth and resistant eggs are imperative for survival. These elegant little creatures have paddle-like appendages that allow them to dip and dive through the water and they seem especially partial to swimming upside down.
It is no wonder that we poor, bewildered humans are constantly struggling to understand the conditions under which life can survive and even flourish. Mono Lake in California with its eerie tufa towers supports enormous populations of brine shrimp and insect larvae as well as a bacterium that has been induced to substitute arsenic for phosphorus into its metabolic cycle.
Perhaps it is fortunate that human beings are not more adaptable than we are since we have already overpopulated the planet and put the environment that is our home in dire jeopardy.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Microscopy UK Front
Published in the November 2016 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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