In a Desert’s Burning Sands, Shrimp

Good News Notes:

In springtime, when the rain gathers into pools in Iran’s Dasht-e Lut Desert, the sand comes alive.

Tiny, desiccated eggs, buried among the ginger-colored granules, drink in the water and begin to hatch. Some may have been laid in the dunes decades ago. But when rains come, the eggs unfurl into small, feathery crustaceans called fairy shrimp, the freshwater cousins of brine shrimp. For a month or two, the fairy shrimp frolic, swimming upside-down in their ephemeral lakes and laying their eggs before they die or the pool dries up, whichever comes first.

Fairy shrimps live in brief spurts in seasonal ponds throughout the world, from steppes in Mongolia to woodlands in Long Island. But the Lut Desert, often called the hottest spot in the world, may be the last place one would think to find water, even seasonally. In 2005, NASA’s Aqua satellite recorded a ground temperature of 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit. So the presence of shrimp in the Lut, while striking, was not entirely out of character.

‘I am not surprised by the presence of Phallocryptus anywhere,’ said Miguel Alonso, a biologist at the University of Barcelona who was not involved with the research. ‘Fairy shrimps can appear in any place.’

The researchers described the new species, Phallocryptus fahimii, this summer in the journal  Zoology in the Middle East.

Hossein Rajaei, an entomologist at the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History in Germany and an author on the study, was the first to spy the shrimp. He had come to the Lut in March 2017, his second visit, on an expedition of 17 people — drivers, medics and researchers — to observe the insects that lived there.

In Farsi, Dasht-e Lut translates to ‘desert of emptiness.’ ‘I suppose they gave it this name because many people believed there was no life in this desert,’ Dr. Rajaei said. Recent expeditions have uncovered an unexpected diversity of spiders, lizards and other fauna, but the life that has been described in seasonal ponds was limited to single-celled archaea.

One day, a little before noon, with the sun high and blazing, the expedition found a lake glimmering in the middle of the desert like an oasis. Dr. Rajaei had never seen a lake so big in the Lut, but the desert had experienced its first heavy rainfall after a decade of drought. The 87 degree Fahrenheit water — the temperature of a warm, creamy soup — felt refreshing in the immense heat, and as Dr. Rajaei waded in the shallow pool he saw milky white creatures swimming around his legs, leaving trails of tiny bubbles. Hadi Fahimi, a herpetologist, and Alexander V. Rudov, another author on the paper, joined Dr. Rajaei in the water and together they scooped up the animals with an insect net.”

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