10 Animals that Live in Extreme Environments

Nature’s stubbornness to adapt and evolve knows no bounds, as illustrated by these animals that live in extreme environments which are deadly to us.

In our search for life on other planets, we typically look for earthlike characteristics, such as a breathable atmosphere, liquid water, moderate temperatures and a similar geological composition. Yet, right here on Earth, there are some environments that are every bit as hostile to us as humans as some of those found on other planets in our solar system. To give an example, you’d last longer on Mars without a spacesuit than you would unprotected at the bottom of the Marianas Trench or in the boiling hot springs of Iceland. Nonetheless, animals that live in extreme environments are found almost everywhere on our planet, as these examples show.

#1. Spinoloricus Cinziae

It’s common knowledge that all animals require oxygen, at least at some point during their lives. At least that was the assumption until the discovery of spinoloricus cinziae in 2010. To date, this tiny microscopic organism is the only member of the animal kingdom known not just to survive, but thrive in a completely oxygen-free (anoxic) environment. Until the discovery, it was assumed that only anaerobic microbes lived in anoxic environments. However, spinoloricus cinziae lives some 2.2 miles (3.5 km) below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Crete, in a so-called dead zone that’s void of oxygen.

#2. Snailfish

SnailfishUniversity of Aberdeen

In December, 2014, the Schmidt Ocean Institute carried out an exhibition to the deepest point of the Earth’s oceans, the Marianas Trench. There it found a new species of sailfish living a staggering five miles (8 km) beneath the waves in an environment where the pressure is over 1,000 times higher than that at sea level and shrouded in perpetual darkness. The record-breaking fish is the deepest one ever found, so deep in fact that the animal would bloat up and rupture if it were to swim to the surface. It’s a sobering thought that we all came from fish, yet this so-far unnamed species lives in an environment that would kill us in a fraction of a second.

#3. Giant Tube Worms

The very existence of 8-foot (2.5 m) giant tube worms proves without a doubt that complex, multicellular life can evolve in environments that are far from what we would ordinarily describe as earthlike. Found on the sea floor a mile or more beneath the waves of the Pacific, these animals live in an ecosystem that exists completely independently of the sun, both directly and indirectly. Instead, they reside around black smokers, hydrothermal vents that pump out warmth and minerals, thus forming the basis of a completely unique ecosystem. The same type of vents likely also exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus in subsurface oceans.

#4. Wood Frog

Wood FrogW-van/Wikimedia Commons

Wood frogs are small and plentiful frogs found throughout the forest floors of north-eastern USA and most of Canada. Like many frogs living in higher latitudes, they’re exceptionally tolerant of the cold, but the wood frog has an adaptation that makes it particularly special. It can literally survive being frozen alive, and it does so every year. The Alaskan wood frog, for example, survives being frozen to temperatures of -16°C before eventually thawing out with no adverse effects. In fact, some species undergo many freezing and thawing cycles throughout the colder months, while antifreeze-like blood manages to keep their circulatory systems functioning.

#5. Tardigrades

This list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of tardigrades, the millimetre-long, water-dwelling animals that seem to be able to survive just about anything. Often dubbed Earth’s most resilient animal, these creatures can survive at temperatures as low as -272°C and as high as 151°C. They can also survive in a vacuum or under pressures higher than those found at the bottom of Earth’s oceans or under radiation levels that would kill a human in minutes. They’re also the only known animal that can survive in outer space, albeit in a dormant state. Unsurprisingly, they’re found all over the world in environments from hot springs to sheets of solid permafrost.

#6. Red Flat Bark Beetle

Red flat bark beetles are, as their name suggests, bright red flat beetles that live beneath the bark of trees. A recently discovered subspecies of the cucujidae family, it lives in the cold-forest environments of Alaska and Canada, boasting a remarkable capability to survive in extremely cold temperatures by the most unconventional of means. The beetles have an extremely powerful antifreeze protein, combined with the ability to dry themselves out to prevent their bodies from freezing in any temperatures they could ever encounter in the wild. In fact, experiments revealed that they can even survive completely unearthly temperatures of -150°C.

#7. Sahara Desert Ant

The Sahara Desert is famously one of the hottest and driest places on Earth, but it’s far from completely void of life. A record-breaking ant, known in scientific circles as cataglyphis bicolour, can forage on the bone-dry sandy surface in temperatures of up to 70°C for short periods. Similar species can also survive much the same environments in the Namib and Australian deserts. Even at the hottest time of the day, the Sahara Desert ant will leave its burrow to scavenge and forage, while using its sense of smell and even counting its own footsteps to quickly find its way home to prevent overheating.

#8. Rüppell’s Vulture

Rüppell’s vulture is endemic to the Sahel belt, a 3,360-mile-long (5,400 km) region of central Africa that forms a natural border between the Sahara Desert and forested areas further south. It bears the distinction of being the highest-flying bird known, cruising at heights of up to 37,000 feet (11,300 m) above sea level, which is only slightly below that of typical commercial airliners. At such great heights, the air is so thin that water boils at 70°C, but the birds have a protein that allows for extremely efficient absorption of oxygen to help it survive the environment. Sadly, however, with an estimated population of 30,000, the vulture is critically endangered.

#9. Himalayan Jumping Spider

Himalayan Jumping SpiderGavin Maxwell

Another animal that’s able to survive in the hostile climes of extreme altitudes is a small black spider that has been found at heights of 22,000 feet (6,700 m) in the Himalayas. It is one of the highest permanently dwelling animals on Earth, where oxygen is in desperately short supply for most species, including humans. For perspective, that’s some 5,300 feet (1600 m) higher than the highest permanently inhabited settlement on Earth – La Rinconada in the Peruvian Andes. The resilient creature thrives in rocky crevices, feeding only on insects and other tiny creatures that are blown up the mountain slopes by the wind.

#10. Sponges

If you have a natural bath sponge, you have one of the oldest and most diverse animals on Earth. These bizarre animals have been around for up to 670 million years, since the time when the planet was a massive ice-covered snowball during the Cryogenian Period. It is in fact the oldest basal clade of animals known, and some species thrive in some of the most hostile and alien environments known to man. Some species live in the so-called abyssal zone, where the ocean is so deep that the sun’s light is non-existent. Despite having no ability to move of their own accord, they have proven to be some of the most resilient creatures in our world.

*

Our planet is full of bizarre animals that are every bit as alien as some of the lifeforms dreamt up by writers and fantasists. What this fact proves is that life can adapt to a vast range of environments, making the discovery of extraterrestrial life, perhaps right here in our own solar system, all the more likely. What sort of extreme organisms do you think we have yet to find here on Earth or perhaps even beyond? Let me know in the comments below!

Further Reading

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

fourteen + twenty =