5. Beneath a Crack in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is the lowest, hottest and driest place in the United States—not a great place to be a fish. But seven species of pupfish are hanging on, the last survivors of lakes that dried up 10,000 years ago. Now the fish are stuck in springs, salty marshes and in Devil’s Hole, an underground aquifer reachable only by a narrow fissure in the rock.
The Devil’s Hole pupfish, one of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act, is one of the rarest animals in the world. Fewer than a hundred were counted this year, and in 2006 its population was 38.
4. Deep Sea Vents
Deep sea vents are the prototypical strange place for life. Complex ecosystems, first discovered in 1977, are thriving in utter darkness, under intense pressure, fueled by sulfur. The vents are found at the intersections of two oceanic plates. Unlike most earthquake and volcano zones, where two plates are coming together, vents are places where two plates are spreading apart. Water seeps into the cracked crust, picks up minerals and heat, and spews out of the vents.
At the bottom of the food chain are microbes that get their energy from chemicals in the vents, usually hydrogen sulfide. Hundreds of other species have been discovered that live only in these vents, including various tube worms, barnacles, mussels and shrimp.
3. At Very, Very Old Ages
Bacteria under stress often form spores, little shelled nuggets that contain the bacterial DNA and some cellular machinery but are dormant. The spores can survive all kinds of trauma—heat, cold, gamma radiation, ultraviolet radiation, high pressure, low pressure—for a very long time. How long? Well, there have been some spectacular claims, some of which scientists are still debating.
In 1995, scientists reported that they had isolated spores from the gut of a bee in 25-million to 40-million-year-old amber. They said they had revived the spores and grown bacteria from them.
A few years later, another team reported reviving much older spores—250 million years old—from salt crystals.