Throughout Arches, naturally occurring sandstone basins called "ephemeral pools" or "potholes" collect rain water and wind-blown sediment, forming tiny ecosystems where a fascinating collection of plants and animals have adapted to life in the desert. Potholes range from a few millimeters to a few meters in depth, and even the smallest potholes may harbor microscopic invertebrates.
To survive in a pothole, organisms must endure extreme fluctuations in several environmental factors. Surface temperatures vary from 140 degrees Fahrenheit in summer to below freezing in winter. As water evaporates, organisms must disperse to larger pools or tolerate dehydration and the drastic physical and chemical changes that accompany it.
The most extreme conditions exist when a pothole is dry. In addition to the wide temperature fluctuations, ultraviolet light from the sun can damage body tissues. Many aquatic organisms are adapted to acquiring oxygen through water and suffer when exposed to air. Pothole organisms have three main ways of dealing with drought:
Pothole organisms not only have to endure dry spells, but also must evaluate conditions and decide when to break dormancy. Desert precipitation falls at irregular intervals, and once water enters a pothole there is no guarantee that there is enough for an organism to complete its life cycle. Most organisms living in potholes have very short life cycles, as brief as ten days, reducing the time water is required and allowing them to live in the shallow pools. Even vertebrates such as toads, which are found in other environments, display shorter development times when found in potholes.
However, the presence of water may not be the only cue used by eggs and dormant life forms to activate. Oxygen content, temperature, and other physical and chemical factors of the water may be evaluated. Some organisms produce different types of eggs that hatch on different cues;others lay eggs in different areas so that they experience slightly different environmental conditions. The net result is that not all eggs hatch at once and the species has a better chance of survival. After a pothole fills with water, the small ecosystem experiences many other changes. Water temperatures can be very high, while oxygen levels can be very low. As the pool shrinks from evaporation, its salinity increases and the pH changes. Many organisms are capable of surviving wide fluctuations in these factors, but for some these changes are an indication that the time for dormancy is near.
Potholes are very easily disturbed. Pothole organisms are sensitive to sudden water chemistry changes, temperature changes, sediment input, being stepped on, and being splashed out onto dry land. Human use of pothole water by swimming, bathing or drinking may change the salinity or pH of a pool drastically. More importantly, this change occurs suddenly, unlike the slow, natural changes to which organisms can adapt. Hikers should therefore avoid using water in potholes as well as walking through dry ones.
While these tiny ecosystems may seem unimportant, they can act as an indicator for the health of the larger ecosystems in which they occur. These pools do not have the ability to counteract acids, so the acid rain caused by industrial pollution may be lethal. Pothole health is monitored at various locations in order to track significant changes in our environment.
Last updated: January 24, 2016