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Heat-Loving Microbes

by AMNH on

On Exhibit posts

In the special exhibition Life at the Limits, visitors can find out which species live in some of the hottest, coldest, and deepest places on the planet. Here’s a look at some of the creatures you’ll discover and the amazing adaptations that allow them to thrive where others can’t.

Think near-boiling water is too hot to support life? Think again. The geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone National Park host an array of thermophillic, or heat-loving, microorganisms that can tolerate temperatures as high as 175 degrees Fahrenheit. These bacteria, along with other microorganisms like archaea, create the vivid color palettes of some of Yellowstone’s famed springs and geysers, like the Grand Prismatic Spring pictured here.

Grand Prismatic Spring
Microbial life can thrive even in the near-boiling water of Yellowstone Park's hot springs.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The blue center is the heart of the spring, where nearly boiling water makes it impossible for anything to survive, resulting in a startlingly blue hue. As the temperature dips farther out from the hot spring’s superheated center, though, more and more kinds of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms are able to endure. The different rings of color emanating from the steaming epicenter represent different microbial communities that call the spring home. 

The most heat-tolerant cyanobacteria dominate the still-extreme temperatures in the yellow-colored ring, while the outer, orange layer hosts an array of organisms that can’t stand the heat quite as well as their neighbors. The colors of these rings also change in response to the time of year and other environmental factors. The cooler outer rings, meanwhile, form ecosystems of their own, hosting flies, mites, spiders, and other animals. Ephydrid flies feast on the bacterial communities and lay their eggs there, while predators like wolf spiders and parasites such as mites are drawn here because of the presence of the flies. 

Wolf Spider
Wolf spiders are known to prey on insects at the cooler edges of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Find out about more amazing species thriving in exceptional environments in the special exhibition Life at the Limits, open now through January 2016. And to learn more about amazing microscopic life that's at home all around you—and even inside of you— visit the special exhibition The Secret World Inside You.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer issue of the Member magazine Rotunda.