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The worst Environment on Earth

Is the goldfish bowl the worst environment on Earth?

People have frequently asked me: “You have travelled all over the world and seen so much – which is the worst place for an animal to live?” What can I reply? A fish won’t last long on dry land; an earthworm would be very unhappy in the desert; a penguin would hate the tropical jungle, and a hummingbird might answer “Scotland”. Seriously, if you are adapted to a place or an environment, you’ll find that place to your liking; if not, you’ll curse it.

We can, of course, look at animal numbers and species diversity to obtain a more objective idea of the degree of harshness of a particular region and its climate. Generally, the land offers more niches and microhabitats with regard to physical features than the sea, and this is clearly reflected in the relatively small number of species inhabiting, for example, the open ocean when compared with the tropical rain forest or some wetlands. We can also look at the food availability in a given region, which makes it obvious that where there are no plants, all animal life is in trouble. Utterly barren sandy deserts (the Atacama in South America comes to mind), windswept, high latitude permafrost regions with extremely cold winters and astonishingly warm summer days (one could think of the Siberian Verkhoyansk with winter and summer extremes of -68°C and +37°C), mountain peaks (Mt Everest’s summit at 8,848m), lightless caves, and the dark, deep and cold troughs of the oceans: they are all worthy contenders for the distinction of being branded the “worst environment”.

However, even in the driest desert it rains occasionally transforming this seemingly dead habitat into one of life; mountain tops and subterranean cavities obtain their share of plant debris and pollen through wind and water, respectively, to support at least some microbial life, and the deep-sea is the recipient of a constant “rain” of dead and decaying plant and animal material from above. In my view the heart of Antarctica, the Polar Plateau and even what’s below it (namely the huge subglacial freshwater “Lake Vostok” more than 3 km under the ice-sheet) can be regarded as some of the most inhospitable terrestrial and freshwater environments on Earth, but I cultivated bacteria from the snow at the South Pole! The -2°C warm or better frigid sea beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, also in Antarctica, is certainly one of Earth’s toughest marine regions to eke out a living. Covered by a 400-500 m thick layer of ice and virtually always dark, nothing “rains down” from above. The nearest area of some kind of primary production is hundreds of miles away to the north and “functional” only for two or three months during the Antarctic summer. And still, in 1979, when I was a team member of the international Ross Ice Shelf Project, we managed to capture some amphipod crustaceans from that very region via a 35 cm wide and 450 m deep hole through solid nice. Why these animals live just there, how they live and what they live on, are questions which have not been answered yet.

But back to our question of the worst environment: the celebrated deep water hydrothermal vents, also known as “hot smokers”, cannot be the worst environments judging by the number of organisms and species (e.g., worms, crabs, fish) that depend on the chemosynthetic microbes, which occur in the mineral-rich vents. I guess the most unlivable aquatic place on Earth is probably the appropriately called “Dead Sea” – with the small goldfish bowl and its sole inhabitant in my doctor’s waiting room a close second behind.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2018.
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