30 animals thriving in extreme environments
Life on Earth is amazingly adaptable and includes some animals that survive and thrive even in the harshest conditions. These animals are masters of the extreme, almost shrugging off the notion that life requires a planet in the "Goldilocks Zone", where it's not too hot, not too cold.
Stacker consulted a variety of scientific publications and science communication sites, such as National Geographic and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), to compile a list of 30 animals that live in extreme environments around the world, and searched articles and scientific papers to find ways these animals are adapted to a wide range of challenging conditions.
Some of these animals are found in water so hot it would scald Goldilocks—or you or me. Others frequent deserts where they can drink only rarely, perhaps digging down to find water below the surface, or collecting water from the air. The living may seem easy in freshwater ponds and swamps. Yet if these are in normally arid areas, they will evaporate in the dry season, leaving mud baking beneath the hot sun. For a fish and a toad, the answer involves disappearing beneath the ground, and waiting months (or sometimes years) until the rains return.
To air-breathing spiders, the underwater realm is an extreme environment—yet one resourceful spider evolved to live there by creating its own air chambers. Especially in the Northern Hemisphere, the coming of winter heralds bitter cold that brings snow and ice, along with minimal hours of daylight. For many millions of birds that breed during summer months, this is also time to fly south to the tropics or other, far-flung parts of the Southern Hemisphere. But the world population of one sea duck, spectacled eider, spends winter on open areas between pack ice in the Bering Sea.
The Arctic winter is even more challenging for animals that can’t fly. Caribou migrate only modest distances, and polar bears carry on hunting with dense fur and other adaptations safeguarding them against the cold. While there are animals that hibernate in cozy places, the Siberian salamander is among creatures that can freeze solid and thaw out, ready to breed in the spring.
Though the vast majority of life on Earth depends on photosynthesis powered by sunlight, deep in the oceans there are communities of creatures relying on the heat and chemicals of super-heated emissions from submarine vents. Rocks below ground may also host tiny life forms, like worms that hunt bacteria within damp crevices.
Not all masters of the extreme are so remote from us. Indeed, two are more likely to be found in human homes than in the wild, partly thanks to an ability to quickly evolve resistance to the chemical weapons we spray at them. Keep reading to discover one of the ultimate masters of the extreme which can even survive trips through the vacuum of space.
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German cockroach and American cockroach
- Scientific names: Blattella germanica and Periplaneta americana
While it turns out that cockroaches aren’t especially well-suited to survive radiation following a nuclear holocaust (a myth possibly rooted in the fact that German and American cockroaches are such tough pests), they have several characteristics that enable them to survive and thrive worldwide—especially in the cozy warmth of human homes.
This includes an ability to rapidly evolve resistance to pesticides, by up to six times within just one generation. This stems from cockroaches having a remarkably long genome, which encodes for enzymes needed to combat pesticides, along with an acute sense of smell for detecting food, plus chemical receptors to help them scurry around natural and urban worlds. Undeterred by narrow confines, cockroaches have been found capable of squeezing through horizontal gaps with their bodies compressed by more than 50% and can withstand around 900 times their body weight.
West African lungfish
- Scientific name: Protopterus annectens
With six species surviving today—four in Africa, one in Australia, the other in South America, lungfish are considered “living fossils” and are the closest living creatures to the ancestors of tetrapods—which include reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.
While they have gills like most fish, lungfish can breathe air using “lungs” that are modified swim bladders. This helps them survive droughts, when then bury into mud, cover themselves in a mucus cocoon, and slow their metabolism in a hibernation-like state called estivation. When there’s enough rain to form a pool again, they emerge—up to six years later.
Himalayan jumping spider
- Scientific name: Euophrys omnisuperstes
The “omnisuperstes” in this species’ Latin name means "highest of all," reflecting the fact no animals are known to live out their lives as high as Himalayan jumping spiders, climbers have found which at 22,000 feet on Mount Everest.
Like all jumping spiders, they have sharp eyesight thanks to an array of four large eyes on the face, enabling them to spot insects the wind has blown up the slopes, and leap onto their prey.
[Pictured: Euophrys rufibarbis.]
- Scientific name: Grylloblattidae
The ice crawler is a curious insect, found in cold places across the northern hemisphere. Its Latin name is based on its appearance, as the spider looks like a combination of crickets (gryll in Greek) and cockroaches (blatta in Greek).
Ice crawlers are omnivorous, and when it’s cold, even below freezing, they scour places like the edges of glaciers and ice caves in search of food such as dead insects. If the temperature rises above 50° F, most species die.
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Mountain stone wētā
- Scientific name: Hemideina maori
Wetas are giant flightless crickets unique to New Zealand and include a species that has evolved to cope with the severe cold of the Southern Alps—the mountain stone Weta. When the temperature drops below freezing, the mountain stone weta can freeze too. Later, as the temperature rises again, the weta thaws out, and resumes its life as the largest insect that can tolerate freezing.
- Scientific name: Aptenodytes forsteri
Standing around 45 inches tall, Emperor penguins are the largest of the world’s penguins and can dive deeper than any other bird—down to 1,850 feet—in search of fish, squid and krill. They have solid bones, rather than the hollow bones typical of birds, to help cope with the extreme water pressures.
Unlike other penguins, Emperor penguins breed during the Antarctic winter. In April, adults leave the sea and march between 30 and 90 miles to places on the ice where they form colonies of up to 10,000 birds. Here, the wind chill can reach -76 degrees Fahrenheit, and when the winds are coldest the penguins form a huddled circle, with any youngsters kept in the warmest center. The huddles slowly rotate, the adults taking turns to take the brunt of the cold on the periphery.
Red flat bark beetle
- Scientific name: Cucujus clavipes
As its name suggests, the flat bark beetle has a flattened body that enables it to live in gaps below and crevices between the bark of trees such as poplars, ashes, and oaks. Most species are red, probably to warn predators they contain unpalatable and toxic chemicals such as fatty acids, which may also make them resistant to fungi.
Cucujus clavipes—often known as the red flat bark beetle—lives as far north as Canada and Alaska, and the larvae, especially, are specially adapted to sub-zero winter temperatures. Researchers have found that antifreeze proteins plus glycerol help the larvae avoid freezing, and below around -76 degrees Fahrenheit they even vitrify, forming a glassy state. Some larvae cooled to -148 degrees Fahrenheit were still alive after gentle warming.
- Scientific name: Dicrostonyx torquatus
Arctic lemmings are small rodents found on arctic tundra from north Europe to northeast Russia. They have thick, long fur that helps insulate against the cold. Rather than hibernate, they remain active throughout winter, avoiding the worst of the cold by forming runs and tunnels beneath the snow cover, so they can search for roots and bulbs to eat.
Gray-crowned rosy finch
- Scientific name: Leucosticte tephrocotis
Gray-crowned rosy finches are remarkably hardy birds, breeding on rocky tundra from Alaska south to the heights of mountain ranges including the Sierra Nevada. While many move downslope or migrate south in winter, the rosy finches of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands are year-round residents.
This toughness is also reflected in the gray-crowned rosy finch probably breeding higher than any other bird in North America, as it nests on the slopes of 20,310-foot Mount Denali.
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Water bear (tardigrade)
- Scientific name: Tardigrada
Looking cute-yet-alien in electron microscope photographs, tardigrades—or water bears—are eight-limbed, microscopic multi-segmented animals, mostly less than .04 inches long. Around 1,200 species of tardigrades are known, and they are found all over the planet. Many favor aquatic environments, from coastlines to ocean depths, while others can be found in sediments and arid deserts.
Tardigrades require at least a thin film of water around them to be active, normally living only a few months at most, land-dwelling species have evolved the ability to survive droughts, even forming a dormant, rather shriveled states known as tuns. If wetted three decades or more later, they can come back to life. Tardigrades in the tun state have also survived temperatures as low as liquid helium, -458 degrees Fahrenheit, and as they also resist radiation they have been used in experiments in space, surviving even the space vacuum. But while some have survived temperatures of up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, tardigrades suffer with long exposure to high temperatures, and this may mean some species will be impacted by climate change.