The Top 5 Most Extreme Ecosystems

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Life is miraculous both in the mere fact of its existence and in the wide variety of forms it takes. From the mighty blue whale to the smallest single-celled bacterium, and from the towering sequoia forests to the humblest dandelions sprouting up from scrubby fields, the vast range of living things is enough to boggle the mind. Amazing too are the places these many forms of life call home, and the ways in which different species of plants and animals can live in concert with one another and with Earth itself, forming sustainable ecosystems even in the most extreme places of our diverse planet.

5 The Hottest Place on Earth

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Death Valley is not a name that evokes thriving biodiversity. In fact, this California desert recently regained its crown as the hottest place on earth. But thanks to the seasonal rains and the varied topography of the region, even record setting 134 degree temperatures are not enough to keep an ecosystem from thriving there. From desert tortoises to birds to small mammals and even the occasional fish, Death Valley is home to many creatures. And from decades-old cacti to seasonally blooming flowers, this desert is far from a wasteland, but in fact boasts a variety of flora across much of its expanse, save for the salt flats, which live up to the region’s name and are devoid of life.

4 The Coldest Place on Earth

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It should come as no surprise that the coldest place on earth can be found on the continent of Antarctica. At Vostok, Antarctica, elevation 11,500 feet, temperatures have dropped as low as negative 128 degrees. The surprising thing about Vostok is that beneath more than two miles of ice, there is a lake of liquid water. The shocking thing about Vostok is that this frigid Antarctic lake seems to be swimming with life! Scientists have found strains of myriad bacteria there, and have also collected evidence that might point to more complex, multicellular organisms trapped in this ancient lake. There might even be fish there!

3 Sunless Caves

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In some of the world’s darkest places exist ecosystems that have been all but unchanged for tens of millions of years. These sunless spots are the homes of faunae the likes of which one will never see elsewhere, and indeed won’t see in their native habitat without artificial light. The Batu Caves in Malaysia are one of the best examples of a perpetually sunless ecosystem, inhabited by dozens of species of insect and arachnid that can be found nowhere else on earth—some of which, like the trapdoor spider, may have existed nearly unchanged for more than a hundred million years!

2 Hydrothermal Vents

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Strange life forms thrive at the bottom of the ocean—a place where almost nothing can survive—fed by hydrogen sulfide, a gas poisonous to most living creatures. And what’s more amazing still, the bacteria around certain deep hydrothermal vents may represent a form of life older than our own. Whereas animals use respiration to create energy and plants use photosynthesis, these bacteria have evolved to use their ecosystem’s only source of energy, hydrogen sulfide gas bubbling up from deep within the planet. They use a unique process called chemosynthesis to convert chemicals into usable sugars.

1 The Driest Place on Earth

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The Atacama Desert sits atop a Chilean plateau and is regarded as the world’s driest place. Many regions of this desert wasteland have never seen recorded rainfall! What liquid does exist in pockets of this 40,000-square-mile desert is mostly in the form of salt lakes. And yet life persists even in this arid place. Some species of lichen and cacti cling to life in parts of the Atacama thanks to the littlest bit of moisture brought by fog rolling in from the Pacific, and a few lizards, mammals and birds have adapted to the harsh, dry climate. In many parts of the Atacama, though, it is so dry that not even insects can survive there.

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