skip to content

Life at the limit: creatures similar to silverfish discovered in Earth’s driest desert

Zoologists from Cologne discover animal life in the heart of Chile’s Atacama Desert / Publication in ‘Global and Planetary Change’

Researchers from the University of Cologne have discovered life in the heart of the Chilean Atacama Desert, one of the driest regions of the world. In this area, which looks a bit like Mars, Professor Dr. Reinhard Predel and his colleague Dr. Alvaro Zúñiga-Reinoso tracked down insects related to silverfish, so-called Maindronia.

The spectacular discovery of these extremely agile animals, which can reach up to 7 centimetres in length, was made in the framework of the Collaborative Research Centre ‘Earth – Evolution at the Dry Limit’. In this CRC, scientists are investigating the long-term evolution of extremely arid landscapes. The study has been published in the journal Global and Planetary Change.

For most people, deserts are hostile regions. ‘In fact, it’s not all that bad," says Reinhard Predel. ‘Most deserts are home to highly specialized fauna, and some are even quite rich in different species.’ The situation becomes critical where there are no plants at all, and the wind does not even blow in plant remains from neighbouring areas. This is the case in the heart of the Atacama Desert. There, not even the ‘specialists’ that are best adapted to life in the desert can survive and the food web collapses. ‘So our chance discovery of these animals was pretty unexpected’, says Predel.

Globally, only three species of Maindronia have been classified so far. These species are prevalent where deserts border on water. Therefore, these animals have always been assumed to be hydrophilic. ‘Apparently no one had the idea to search deeper in the desert. But after we discovered the first animals in the Atacama, there was no holding back. They seem to be the desert animals par excellence’, says Reinhard Predel.

After their discovery and closer examination, it is now certain that at least 5 different kinds of Maindronia live in the heart of the Atacama. Their adaptation to the extreme conditions there goes back a long time. The species from the Atacama are very similar to already known species from Arabic desert regions, also in terms of their appearance. This suggests that millions of years ago, the animals lived – very much the same way as they do today – in the southern part of the supercontinent Gondwana.

By implication, this could also mean that in South America and North Africa, there have been extremely dry, so-called hyper-arid habitats for more than 100 million years, ensuring the survival of the Maindronia. ‘Thus, these living fossils also tell us something about the evolution of Earth’, Predel explains.

Which physiological adaptations allow Maindronia to survive under these extreme conditions is still completely unclear. Why are they so extremely agile? They have a sensor system that is reminiscent of cave animals. What is its function? And what do they actually eat? Preliminary findings suggest that the animals could be harvesting a biofilm of microorganisms that is invisible to the naked eye. Researchers will investigate these questions in more detail in the future.

Media contact:    
Professor Dr. Reinhard Predel
CRC 1211 ‘Earth – Evolution at the Dry Limit’ / Zoological Institute
+49 221 470-5817

Press and Communications Team:
Jan Voelkel
+49 221 470-2356

Alvaro Zúñiga-Reinoso and Reinhard Predel: Past climatic changes and their effects on the phylogenetic pattern of the Gondwanan relict Maindronia (Insecta: Zygentoma) in the Chilean Atacama Desert. Global and Planetary Change, 182: 1-8.