There are animals in the water of the Great Salt Lake


(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Microbialite structures seen at the Great Salt Lake on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023.
When you think about animals swimming, growing and thriving in the Great Salt Lake’s water, brine shrimp and brine flies are likely the only two things that come to mind.
But scientists have discovered another multi-celled lifeform that has long called the lake’s salty water home.
Turns out, there are lots and lots of tiny worms called nematodes living in the lake’s microbialites, the rocky round structures built by photosynthesizing bacteria.
“One thing I think is really cool about nematodes is how abundant they are,” said Michael Werner, a biology professor at the University of Utah.
“About four out of every five animals on the planet is a nematode.”Nematodes, sometimes called roundworms, are mostly small — about a millimeter in size.
But some can grow bigger than that.
One parasitic species that lives in sperm whales, Werner said, can grow to 30 feet long.
Werner came to Utah and started his lab at the U. right when pandemic lockdowns began.
Without much to do in the lab, the professor found himself hiking a lot more, including at the Great Salt Lake’s Antelope Island.
“I saw all these signs that said ‘Only brine flies and brine shrimp can live in these waters,’” Werner said.
“But I study nematodes, so I was like, ‘I’m not so sure about that.’”Postdoctoral student Julie Jung came to the U. about a year later, fresh off of studying tree frogs in Central America.
She liked the idea of looking for little worms in Utah’s vast salty lake.
“I didn’t know what a nematode was,” Jung said, “and how prevalent they are in the world.
It’s fascinating.”Werner said he was happy to recruit someone used to spending time outside the lab.
“I didn’t have a lot of field research experience myself,” the professor said.
So this was kismet for me.”The pair started their worm survey in the spring of 2021, paddling around the lake.
But as the lake dropped to a record low that year, and kept receding the following year, they had to use bikes instead.
“The ground is so soft it’s not compact enough for the bikes to gain traction,” Werner said.
“Those were some rough days.”(Michael Werner) University of Utah postdoctoral student Julie Jung searches for nematodes near some surfaced microbialites.
The scientists soon found nematodes wriggling on the surface of a microbialite sample.
“I remember this moment we found the first worm was really exciting,” Jung said.
“We were stinky and salty because we had collected that day.”They found about five or six nematodes in total, Werner said, visible only with a microscope.
“We were over the moon, finding these small numbers of worms,” he added.
“Then Julie said, ‘You know Michael, I think they might be inside the microbialites.’”The professor went back to other lab work.
“Julie had taken a hammer and was pulverizing a microbialite,” he said.
“She found hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of worms.
That really broke open this whole project for us.”The scientists became curious whether there was something about the microbialites that allowed the nematodes to survive in the lake’s hyper-saline water.
The lake’s fresher southern half is still about nine times saltier than the ocean.
They fed some non-lake nematodes bacteria that build the microbialite structures, then exposed those worms, along with worms fed their usual diet, to the lake’s briny water.
Within 24 hours, the nematodes fed microbialite bacteria were still alive, while the control worms were dead.
“It opened up this whole exciting area of ecology of what worms are doing in the lake,” Werner said.
“Maybe the nematoes are contributing to microbialite formation as well.
They might be transporting useful bacterial to other parts of the microbialite.”It also underscores the importance of a healthy lake elevation for supporting life.
When the Great Salt Lake shrunk to record lows in 2021 and 2022, it exposed many microbialites to the air and killed off the living colonies that formed them.
“We found nematodes in those ones,” Jung said, “but they were [also] pretty obviously dead.”Jung and Werner published their findings Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.Bonnie Baxter, a biology professor at Westminster University and director of the Great Salt Lake Institute, has studied the microbialites for decades.
She said she’s long suspected nematodes might be living in the lake.
“But to find them in the fabric of the microbialites was fascinating,” she said.
Microbialites are formed by organisms that build photosynthetic mats and pull minerals out of the water, solidifying them into rocky structures layer by layer, year by year.
They’re found along cracks and fault lines in the Great Salt Lake’s lakebed where groundwater seeps through.
Brine flies spend most of their lives attached to the structures as pupae, before they turn to into adults, float to the surface and feed millions of migrating waterfowl and shor

Microbialite structures observed at the Great Salt Lake on Friday, December (Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). 29, 2023.

Brine shrimp and brine flies are probably the only two species that spring to mind when considering animals that swim, grow, and thrive in the waters of the Great Salt Lake.

However, another multicellular organism that has long resided in the lake’s briny water has been found by scientists.

It turns out that the microbialites—rocky, circular structures produced by photosynthesizing bacteria—in the lake are home to an enormous number of tiny worms known as nematodes.

Professor of biology at the University of Utah Michael Werner said, “I think one really cool thing about nematodes is how abundant.”. Nematodes make up about four of every five animals on the planet. “.

Nematodes, also referred to as roundworms, are typically millimeter-sized organisms. Still, some are capable of growing larger. According to Werner, one parasitic species that inhabits sperm whales can reach a length of thirty feet.

Werner moved to Utah and set up shop at the U. just as lockdowns amidst pandemics started. The professor, having little to do in the lab, found himself going on more hikes, including to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake.

Werner recalled seeing signs stating that “only brine shrimp and brine flies can live in these waters.”. However, I study nematodes, so I thought, ‘I’m not sure about that. ‘”.

Julie Jung, an intern, visited the U.S. shortly after returning from a year-long study of tree frogs in Central America. The thought of searching the large, briny lake in Utah for tiny worms appealed to her.

“I had no idea what a nematode was or how common they are in nature,” Jung remarked. It’s exciting. “.

Werner expressed his happiness at hiring a person who was accustomed to spending time away from the lab.

The professor remarked, “I didn’t have much experience doing field research myself. I consider myself to be a molecular biologist with classical training. For me, then, this was meant to be. “.

Paddling around the lake, the two began their worm survey in the spring of 2021. However, they were forced to switch to riding bikes as the lake continued to recede as it hit a record low that year and the following year.

Werner stated, “The ground is so soft it’s not compact enough for the bikes to gain traction.”. “Those were not easy days. “.

Julie Jung, a postdoctoral student at the University of Utah, looks for nematodes close to some surfaced microorganisms (Michael Werner).

It was worthwhile for them to work. Nematodes were discovered by the scientists writhing on the surface of a microbialite sample.

“I recall how thrilling it was when we discovered the first worm,” remarked Jung. We had gathered that day, so we were salty and stench-filled. “.

Werner reported that they discovered a total of five or six nematodes that could only be seen under a microscope.

“We were ecstatic to discover these tiny amounts of worms,” he continued. Julie then remarked, ‘You know Michael, I think they could be inside the microbialites,'”. “.”.

The lecturer returned to his other lab tasks. Then he heard a hitting sound.

According to him, Julie was smashing a microbialite with a hammer. She discovered hundreds, even thousands, of worms. For us, that really opened our project up. “.

The nematodes’ ability to survive in the extremely salinized water of the lake piqued the scientists’ curiosity as to whether the microbialites had any special properties. Even so, the salt content of the lake’s fresher southern half is still roughly nine times that of the ocean.

After feeding some non-lake nematodes the bacteria that create the microbialite structures, they exposed the worms to the lake’s briny water along with worms fed their regular diet. In contrast to the control worms, which had died after 24 hours, the nematodes fed microbialite bacteria remained alive.

Werner stated, “It opened up this whole exciting area of ecology of what worms are doing in the lake.”. “Perhaps the nematodes are also aiding in the formation of microbialite. dot. It is possible that they are moving beneficial bacteria to different areas of the microbiota. “.

It also emphasizes how vital a healthy lake elevation is to the sustenance of life. The Great Salt Lake exposed numerous microbialites to the air and destroyed the living colonies that gave rise to them when it drained to record lows in 2021 and 2022.

According to Jung, “we found nematodes in those ones, but they were [also] pretty obviously dead.”. “.

The Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal published Jung and Werner’s findings on Tuesday.

For several decades, Bonnie Baxter, a biology professor at Westminster University and the director of the Great Salt Lake Institute, has been researching microbialites. She mentioned that she had long suspected the lake may be home to nematodes.

However, it was intriguing to discover them woven into the microbialites, the speaker added.

By constructing photosynthetic mats and extracting minerals from the water and rearranging them into stony formations layer by layer, year after year, organisms create microbialites. They are located where groundwater seeps through fault lines and fissures in the lakebed of the Great Salt Lake.

Since the calcium in the lake is scarce, which is what makes them made of calcium carbonate, Baxter explained, the calcium must come from below ground. “.

Because they sustain a large portion of the lake’s life, they are frequently likened to coral reefs in the ocean. Before becoming adults and floating to the surface to feed millions of migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, brine flies spend the majority of their life attached to the structures as pupae.

“They differ in that these are microbes, whereas coral is an animal,” explained Baxter. They are the lake’s photosynthesizers. We believe that even the water-dwelling algae are not doing as much photosynthesis as these. “.

It seems that they aid nematodes in surviving in some of the most extreme circumstances on Earth.

In 2016, researchers reported discovering nematodes at California’s Mono Lake, another salt lake in the West. Tufas are similar rock formations found in Mono Lake, but they are created by freshwater seeps rather than microbes. But in Owens Lake, another saline lake in California devoid of rocky structures, scientists have not been able to locate nematodes.

The nematodes that Jung and Werner discovered in the Great Salt Lake may belong to a completely new species, or even several species, but that is a topic for another study.

“People underestimate the amount of life in the Great Salt Lake,” stated Jung. Furthermore, the microscopic world is incredibly beautiful. “.

The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative is a collaboration of media, education, and news organizations with the goal of educating readers about the Great Salt Lake. This article was published through the initiative.

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