• Steam rises off of the colorful Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank


    National Park ID,MT,WY

Life in Extreme Heat

Norris Geyser Basin
Porcelain Basin

The hydrothermal features of Yellowstone are magnificent evidence of Earth's volcanic activity. Amazingly, they are also habitats in which microscopic organisms called thermophiles—"thermo" for heat, "phile" for lover—survive and thrive.

Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin is an outstanding example of this dual characteristic. Visitors marvel at its size and brilliant colors. Along the boardwalk they cross a vast habitat for thermophiles. Nourished by energy and chemical building blocks available in the hot springs, microbes construct vividly colored communities. Living with these microscopic life forms are larger examples of life in extreme environments, such as mites, flies, spiders, and plants. People for thousands of years likely have wondered about these extreme habitats. The color of Yellowstone's superheated environments certainly caused geologist Walter Harvey Weed to pause and think, and even question scientists who preceded him. In 1889, he wrote:

There is good reason to believe that the existence of algae of other colors, particularly the pink, yellow and red forms so common in the Yellowstone waters, have been overlooked or mistaken for deposits of purely mineral matter.

However, he could not have imagined what a fantastic world exists in these waters of brimstone. Species, unseen to the human eye, thrive in waters as acidic as the liquid in your car battery and hot enough to blister your skin. Some create layers that look like molten wax on the surface of steaming alkaline pools. Still others, apparent to us through the odors they create, exist only in murky, sulfuric caldrons that stink worse than rotten eggs.

Today, many scientists study Yellowstone's thermophiles. Some of these microbes are similar to the first life forms capable of photosynthesis—using sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide to oxygen, sugars, and other by-products. These lifeforms, called cyanobacteria, began to create an atmosphere that would eventually support human life. Cyanobacteria are found in some of the colorful mats and streamers of Yellowstone's hot springs.

About Microbes

Other life forms—the archaea —predated cyanobacteria and other photosynthesizers. Archaea can live in the hottest, most acidic conditions in Yellowstone; their relatives are considered among the very earliest life forms on Earth. Yellowstone's thermophiles and their environments provide a living laboratory for scientists, who continue to explore these extraordinary organisms.They know many mysteries of Yellowstone's extreme environments remain to be revealed. Regardless of scientific advances, visitors and explorers in Yellowstone can still relate to something else Weed said about Yellowstone, more than a century ago:

The vegetation of the acid waters is seldom a conspicuous feature of the springs. But in the alkaline waters that characterize the geyser basins, and in the carbonated, calcareous waters of the Mammoth Hot Springs, the case is otherwise, and the red and yellow tinges of the algae combine with the weird whiteness of the sinter and the varied blue and green of the hot water to form a scene that is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful as well as one of the strangest sights in the world.


Words to Know

Extremophile: A microorganism living in extreme conditions such as heat and acid, and cannot survive without these conditions.

Thermophile: Heat-loving extremophile.

Microorganism: Single- or multi-celled organism of microscopic or submicroscopic size. Also called a microbe.

Microbes in Yellowstone: In addition to the thermophilic microorganisms, millions of other microbes thrive in Yellowstone's soils, streams, rivers, lakes, vegetation, and animals. Some of them are discussed in other chapters of this book.

Bacteria (Bacterium): Single-celled microorganisms without nuclei, varying in shape, metabolism, and ability to move.

Archaea (Archaeum): Single-celled microorganisms without nuclei and with membranes different from all other organisms. Once thought to be bacteria.

Viruses: Non-living parasitic microorganisms consisting of a piece of DNA or RNA coated by protein.

Eukarya (Eukaryote): Single- or multi-celled organisms whose cells contain a distinct membrane-bound nucleus.


Did You Know?