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10 Animals That Live In Extreme Environments

brine shrimp
Brine shrimp. Image via Depositphotos

To survive out in the wild, you must be able to improvise, adapt, and overcome! Many organisms have, thus, evolved to survive in ecologically niche environments that other species cannot tolerate. These organisms are called “extremophiles” and they push the boundaries of living and thriving on Earth. 

Thermophiles

Is it just me or is it hot in here?  

Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana)

pompeii worm
Pompeii worm. Chen, C., Jamieson, J.W. & Tunnicliffe, V. (2024), CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many animals on this list look like aliens, and we’re starting off strong with the Pompeii worm. Named after the city that was famously destroyed by a volcanic eruption, the Pompeii worm can only be found by hydrothermal vents deep in the Pacific Ocean. 

A hydrothermal vent is a crack, or fissure, in the ocean that spews out hot water from the Earth’s crust that has been heated by the hot magma layer below. It’s here, at a temperature range of 140–220 °F (60–105 °C), where the Pompeii worms thrive.

Hydrothermal vent snail (Alviniconcha hessleri)

Alviniconcha hessleri, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Who knew hydrothermal vents had such good real estate? These snails live under much the same conditions as the Pompeii worms, but are instead found in the Mariana Trough at a depth of 1,400 m below sea level. 

Interestingly, these snails get their energy through microorganisms that live in their gut called chemosynthetic endosymbionts. These microorganisms sustain both themselves and the snails by means of a process called chemosynthesis. This is similar to photosynthesis, except instead of sunlight being converted to energy, chemicals, like methane or hydrogen sulphide, are converted into energy.

Psychrophiles

These creatures are way cooler than you. 

Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus

arctic fox
Arctic Fox. Image via Depositphotos

These fluffy little guys occur throughout the Arctic tundra region, where it reaches temperatures as low as –58 °F (–50 °C). Of course, their best insulator is their thick, multi-layered fur coat. Interestingly, the foot pads of Arctic foxes are covered in a layer of fur, which is a unique adaptation not found in any other canid animal (of the dog family). 

Arctic foxes conserve their energy, and thus heat, by curling up in a ball with their legs and head tucked into their body. Further, they build up fat stores in preparation for winter, often increasing their body weight by 50%. 

Snow petrel (Pagodroma nivea)

snow petrel
Snow Petrel. Image via Depositphotos

Snow petrels are one of only three species of bird seen living and flying around the South Pole in Antarctica, with the others being the Antarctic petrel and the south polar skua. These birds feed largely on krill in the sea, and they have a specialised gland that allows them to drink salt water. 

These snow-white birds breed during the winter, when temperatures average –30 °F (–35 °C), eggs are usually laid in rock crevices, and chicks hatch during the spring. Snow petrels mate for life – around 20 years. 

Halophiles

They’re a little salty.

Sea Skaters (Halobates spp.)

sea skater
Sea Skater. Pigmentsandsuch, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These insects do more than just walk on water, they are the only insects that live out on the surface of the open ocean. Conditions out at sea are pretty harsh, as there is nowhere to hide from the sun or predators. Much of their adaptations to these conditions are unknown.

Deep-ocean sea skaters feed on small prey that can float, including zooplankton, drowned insects, and larvae. Further, they lay their eggs on objects that float on the surface of the ocean, like cuttlefish bones, feathers, and, unsurprisingly, plastic waste. 

Brine shrimp (Artemia spp.)

brine shrimp
Brine shrimp. Image via Depositphotos

Brine shrimp, or sea monkeys, are tiny crustaceans that typically live in inland saltwater lakes or, occasionally, in the ocean. Due to the high salinity (up to 25% salt) of the waters these arthropods occupy, they don’t have many natural predators. Interestingly, a later addition to our list, the flamingo, is one of their few predators.

Brine shrimp primarily feast on algae. In fact, they are often popular additions to saltwater aquariums because they keep the tank clean; however, they might be eaten by other fish in the tank. 

Oligotrophs

Pssht, who needs nutrients anyway? 

Olm (Proteus anguinus)

olm
Two olms. Boštjan Burger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Olms certainly look like a creature out of a sci-fi flick. These blind, albino salamanders live in underwater caves around Central and Southeastern Europe and were once believed to be the children of dragons. 

Now, you may think that underwater caves don’t offer much in terms of nutrients, and you’d be right. Luckily for olms, they can survive without food for up to a decade. They feed on insect larvae and small crustaceans, and store the acquired nutrients in their livers. When food becomes particularly scarce, they reduce their metabolic activity and utilize their stored nutrients.  

Tumbling Creek Cavesnail (Antrobia culveri)

cavesnail
Tumbling Creek cavesnail. David Ashley (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another cavedweller, these snails are endemic to Tumbling Creek Cave, a National Natural Landmark in Missouri, USA. 

Tumbling Creek cavesnails are believed to feed on biofilm that forms on rocks in these caves. Unfortunately, this species of cavesnails are endangered due to pollution affecting the water quality of the cave’s recharge area. 

Polyextremophiles

These organisms push the limits of what’s possible! Are they superheroes? 

Tardigrades (Ramazzottius oberhaeuseri)

tardigrade
Rendering of a tardigrade. Image via Depositphotos

Tardigrades, or water bears, are some of the most interesting creatures on Earth! They are microscopic animals that have been found in many different regions across the globe, including tropical forests, the deep sea, and even Antarctica. 

Tardigrades are able to halt their metabolic activity in a process called “cryptobiosis.” in this state, they can survive without food, become almost completely hydrated, and withstand extreme temperatures and even radiation. In fact, they are the first animals to ever survive being exposed to outer space!  

Lesser flamingos (Phoenicoparrus minor)

lesser flamingo
Lesser flamingos walking on the water of Lake Natron. Tanzania. Image via Depositphotos

The final animal on this list is perhaps not one you’d expect. Flamingos are surprisingly hardy birds, and the Lesser Flamingo species is no exception. 

There’s a lake in Kenya where the alkalinity is so high, swimming in it would actually burn your skin. This is Lake Natron, and it’s here where Lesser Flamingos breed. Flamingos are uniquely adapted to high salinity and extreme temperatures in both directions. 

To learn more about flamingos and the incredible conditions they can endure, click here!  

Conclusion

Evolution has produced some incredibly resilient species, but it does beg the question – if animals can survive under such harsh conditions on Earth, how far do we really need to look for life on other planets? 

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