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Astrobiology in Our National Parks

Photo of a pothole ecosystem at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
NPS / Zigic
A pothole ecosystem at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

If you’ve ever been to a National Park before, think back to that experience. Maybe you were hiking along the rim of a certain steep, deep, and narrow Black Canyon. Maybe you were watching bison wallowing in the tall grass of a prairie. Or maybe you were snorkeling with a school of colorful fish in a sparkling ocean

The National Parks preserve and protect some of Earth’s most breathtaking places. They show us why Earth is nicknamed the ‘Goldilocks Planet’. But if you’ve ever witnessed Yellowstone’s boiling, acidic pools, you know that the National Parks also have extreme environments. Did you know that these extreme environments could help us to discover life beyond Earth?

Astrobiologists study the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Astrobiologists investigate Earth’s extreme environments because they resemble those of early Earth and other planets.

So, when an astrobiologist hikes along the rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, they might think of Mars. What’s the connection between the Black Canyon and the Red Planet?


Many National Parks in the southwest, including Black Canyon, are full of potholes. Unlike those annoying potholes in the road, these potholes are shallow depressions in rock that collect rainwater and snowmelt. Potholes are temporary and can dry up in a few days.

Despite their harsh nature, potholes are teeming with life. Inspect one after a rainy day at Black Canyon, and you may spot half-inch-long fairy shrimp, wriggling their twenty-two tiny legs and zooming around upside-down. Look a little closer with a microscope, and you can see a puffy-looking water bear or a semi-transparent rotifer.

These organisms have adapted to super dry conditions. Some can lose most of their body water and enter a dormant state called anhydrobiosis. Certain pothole critters can survive like this for years. Fairy shrimp eggs have successfully hatched after spending over half a century dried up in a jar!

What do Black Canyon’s potholes have to do with Mars? Mars once had liquid water. Today, it’s locked up in ice. Perhaps there was once life on Mars with adaptations like our pothole critters for dealing with drought. Perhaps that life still exists, in a dormant state. If life can survive extreme drought on Earth, perhaps it can survive extreme drought on other planets.

Astrobiology research doesn’t end with the potholes of Black Canyon. Scientists are studying the microbes of Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic, Wind Cave, and more. So next time you visit a National Park, know that all that beauty could also be the key to uncovering extraterrestrial life. So, yea, the views totally are out of this world!


Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society and KVNF Community Radio. This feature was written and voiced by ranger Savannah Zigic of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.


Water on Mars: The Story So Far | News | Astrobiology (nasa.gov)

A Pothole in the Road of Life | News | Astrobiology (nasa.gov)