Yellowstone geyser

Extreme locations

Finding life where you least expect it

Life creeps into just about every corner of our planet, meaning you’ll find thriving populations in places that seem almost uninhabitable.

Over 25 years ago a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine exploded. Most humans were evacuated from the contaminated areas, wildlife has moved back in, and populations of pine trees and swallows are now studied for the lasting effects of radiation.

Populations depend upon one another, forming communities – so where you find one you’re sure to find another. At deep-sea vents, which spout volcanically heated water from cracks in the seafloor, there is no light and plants cannot grow. Yet even in this hostile environment, populations of microbes survive by releasing energy from chemicals in the hot fluid.

Higher up the food chain, animal populations, including worms and shrimp, depend on these microbes for their own energy. Meanwhile, vent crabs scavenge, eating both microbes and dead animals.

Other odd places for populations and communities include shipwrecks and the underwater components of offshore wind turbines, which can act like reefs for mussels and fish, the International Space Station, which hosts a very small population of astronauts, and Antarctic islands, which are home to ancient mosses that can be brought back to life in a lab after having been frozen for 1500 years.

There’s even an ecosystem in your belly button – scientists have discovered a whole new species of bacteria in people’s navels. (Google ‘Belly Button Biodiversity Project’ if you want to find out more.)

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About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Populations’ in June 2014.

Ecology and environment
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development