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Scientists discover new species in Utah's Great Salt Lake that changes what we know about the 950-square-mile body of water

  • A tiny worm was found living in highly salty conditions in the Great Salt Lake 
  • The discovery could change the way scientists understand the lake's ecosystem

Scientists have discovered a new species in Utah's Great Salt Lake that could change what we know about its ecosystem.  

An investigation into the 950-sqaure-mile water body began when a researcher from the University of Utah spotted a sign that said only brine shrimp and flies are able to survive the extreme salt levels. 

Believing the signage to be false, because other creatures can thrive in similar ecosystems, the expert and his team began sifting through sediment deposits and found a previously unknown species - thousands of tiny worms called nematodes.

Nematodes once populated the Great Salt Lake, but were thought to have vanished in 1985 when the lakebed shrunk and exposed them to the air.

The researcher's findings not only prove that the lake's ecosystem is livelier than previously thought, but because the lake's water has hit record low levels, it shows the importance of a healthy lake elevation. 

Microbialites form when organisms like algae and bacteria form a mat on the rock© Provided by Daily Mail
Researchers at the University of Utah found tiny worms living in a reef-like rock in the Great Salt Lake© Provided by Daily Mail

Michael Werner, a biology professor and nematode expert, saw the sign during a hike in 2020 and immediately questioned it.

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So I thought, 'Maybe nobody has taken a close look?'' 

Werner brought his speculations to his colleagues who joined him in the mission to see if nematodes were in fact living in the the extreme salt levels that are two to nine times saltier than the ocean's three percent.

Along with his postdoctoral student, Julie Jung, Werner traversed the lake, first by boat and then by bike when the water levels dropped to a record low in 2022.

Werner told The Tribune that Jung had suggested there might be more nematodes living inside the microbialites, sedimentary deposit made of carbonate mud, before taking a hammer to the reef-like rock. 

'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.'

Microbialites form when organisms like algae and bacteria form a mat on the rock that give it that slippery coating when walking on them.

Nematodes are tiny worms that can live in extreme and harsh conditions© Provided by Daily Mail

It attracts minerals from the water which build upon the existing rock structure and are often found along the fault lines and cracks in the outer areas of the Great Salt Lake.

These are compared to coral reefs found in the ocean because they support lifeforms in the lake like the Brine Flies which attach to the microbialites while they grow into adults before floating to the surface.

In turn, their appearance above water serves as a food source for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.

Werner and his team wanted to understand whether the microbialites helped the nematodes to survive or if it was the other way around.

They conducted a test by feeding non-lake nematodes the bacteria from the microbialites and exposed them to the lake's briny water along with a control group of non-lake nematode worms that were only fed their usual diet of fungi

The control group of worms were dead within 24 hours while the nematodes that were fed the bacteria were still alive.

'It opened up this whole exciting area of the ecology of what worms are doing in the lake,' Werner told the outlet.

'Maybe the nematodes are contributing to microbialite formation as well. ... They might be transporting useful bacteria to other parts of the microbialite.'

More research still needs to be conducted, but Werner is hopeful this could not only help understand how the Great Salt Lake's ecosystem functions, but could also shed light on how organisms survive on other planets, like Mars, that have extreme climate conditions.

'I think people look at the lake and hear (about) the lake as this kind of stinky, lifeless place in our backyard, but it's so much more than that,' Jung told KSL.com.

Story by Nikki Main Science Reporter For Dailymail.Com

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