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Extremist behaviour


14 Apr

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Did you know that there is such a thing as an “extremophile”? The word was a new one to me, but it doesn’t take a linguist to see that it describes a creature that lives in the world’s most extreme environments; deserts, ice caps, sulphur springs and other such cheery places. I would think that the suffix “-phile” could be a little irksome to an animal that spends the entirety of its miserable life in some hostile corner of the world. It appears to suggest a love, an exuberance even (“I just can’t get enough of life in this geyser”) rather than just a tight-lipped tolerance of its circumstances. One such animal is a tiny bluish-grey cichlid fish, no bigger than your hand, which goes by the catchy name of Alcolapia alcalicus. By some cruel twist of fate, this little animal finds itself living in the intensely un-homely waters of Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania. Conditions in the waters of Lake Natron are plain nasty; even brief exposure to the water and soda crystals can cause severe burning to humans. There are two elements that are you really need to be aware of if you’re considering going to live in the lake itself. The first is the temperature of the water – most tropical fish are adapted to live in a temperature range in the low to mid 20s Centigrade (70-80 Fahrenheit), which is like a pleasantly heated swimming pool. The temperatures in Lake Natron can reach as much as a staggering 50 Centigrade (120 Fahrenheit) in some parts. The other is the pH (the measure of how alkaline or acidic something is). Water is at the middle of the scale at 7. A very strong acid would be at 1 and a very strong alkali at 14. An animal would normally be considered to be pretty tough if it could tolerate a pH of as much as the high 8s. Alcolapia Alcalicus lives in a pH that is frequently as alkaline as 10. That is the equivalent of living permanently in pure ammonia. Who knows what these little fish really do with their lives, or who ever meets them, but the fact that they exist is a fantastic example of the level of surprises there are in store in the natural world. What I’d like to know is if it’s physically possible to cook one of these fish given how comfortable it is in salt and hot water.