It is finally October and you know what that means–watching scary movies about zombies or possessed dolls threatening to take over the world in post-apocalyptic fashion. After some people watch these horror films, they may start to wonder “how would I survive if a zombie/possessed doll apocalypse really did happen?” No need to fear, science is here! Throughout this month, I attempt to answer that question by combining four amazing animal adaptations specifically designed to survive the harsh conditions of post-apocalyptic events. This month’s adaptation comes from a dried up desert pothole, the unassuming fairy shrimp.
Desert potholes ARE NOT formed by cars driving on asphalt in the desert, they are formed when calcium carbonate within desert sandstone wears away due to heavy rainfall. What remains are grains of sand which the wind blows away, leaving the fragile desert ecosystem known as ‘desert potholes.’ Since rainfall in the desert is limited, these potholes fill up with water only a few times throughout the year and when they do, the water may dry up within a matter of days. Needless to say, the creatures that can live in this kind of ecosystem are among the world’s hardiest of creatures.
Finally, rain falls and cakes the dusty desert soil with water. The rain continues to fall and fills various desert potholes with water. This little bit of water is enough to trigger the hatching of the fairy shrimp eggs left desiccated at the bottom of the pothole. These microscopic crustaceans are now racing against time and temperature as they need to mature, mate, and lay eggs before their home dries up once more. No time to relax and enjoy the desert pool party. A few weeks following the rainfall, the desert shrimp has matured, mated, and is now ready to lay eggs. Though the fairy shrimp has incredible legs which it uses for movement, breathing, and eating, its really amazing adaptation is found in the eggs. The eggs of fairy shrimp can undergo a process known as “cryptobiosis.” This is a physiological state in which their metabolism drops to an unimaginable level and is triggered to start up again once water becomes available once more. Fairy shrimp eggs can even survive in space under this condition! Besides fairy shrimp eggs, other tiny creatures within the desert potholes use cryptobiosis as well, such as tardigrades and rotifers.
Whether aliens come to steal all of our planet’s water supply or if our planet dries up like a husk, cryptobiosis is certainly a great survival strategy. To have the ability to shut down all bodily functions and remain living for extended periods of time until water shows up again would give you a huge advantage during such apocalyptic events. Currently, there are some creatures that use cryptobiosis that can survive for years until living conditions become available once more.
Who knew a tiny crustacean could teach us so much about extreme survival?! But there are other adaptations that will be even more beneficial for a wider variety of apocalyptic events. Stay tuned next week as we discuss another unique animal adaptation that will prove useful during the apocalypse. Here’s a hint: this beloved sea creature is sometimes referred to as Poseidon’s steed…
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