Explore the Very Tiny Along the Trail

by Sarah Hamilton, Spring 2006

Diverse New Mexico offers numerous terrains to explore, from the Ponderosa covered Sandia Mountains to the dormant volcanoes of Petroglyph National Monument. As we explore the infinitely, exciting natural world of New Mexico, life surrounds us reminding us that we are not alone Deer spring forth from the juniper trees, snakes sunbathe on bare rocks, and trees dance in the wind. With closer inspection, you may notice another abundantly thriving world, on the ground where the deer walks, under the boulder that the snake lounges on, and attached to the tree bark. This is the world of microorganisms. Let's take a closer look.

First, stop along a slow moving streambed. Notice the green algae resting on the surface of the water. These simple organisms, sometimes composed of only one cell, have been around for more than 2 billion years in one form or another. This particular organism has many cells collaborating together producing the green colored life form. Algae capture light energy through photosynthesis converting sunlight along with a few other substances into simple sugars. This is their food source. Look for algae in moist areas such as ponds, lakes, streams, or hot springs. Algae

Lichen on granite Farther up the trail, observe a yellowish-green, leaf-like patch growing on this rock. This lichen also makes its own food. Lichens are composed of two organisms, the fungi, and green algae. Sometimes the lichen are composed of a specific type of bacteria called cyanobacteria, in place of the algae. These organisms work together to sustain life. The algae produce the food while the fungi anchor the lichen to a rock, tree, or the surface of soil. The relationship is a kind of marriage where each depends on the other for its survival. Lichen exist all over the world and in many different environments. They can survive in extreme temperatures and do not die when dried for extended periods of time. This should be New Mexico's state plant! But they are vulnerable to toxic-air borne pollutants, and since they have no way to excrete them if they absorb too many, they will die.

From the Narrows Rim Trail
Lichen on a tree
From the Purgatory Chasm hike

Now that your eyes have become more sensitive to less noticeable life forms, look at the small pinnacles that rise slightly above the rest of the soil. These miniature mountains and mesas are called biological soil crust. These forms when the bacteria, lichen, and mosses living in the soil moisten and become active. They move through the soil, leaving a trail of sticky material behind. This binds to the soil particles forming an intricate web of fibers joining loose particles together, and an otherwise unstable surface becomes very resistant to both wind and water erosion. These microorganisms help hold New Mexico together! Cryptobiotic crusts
From the Rim Vista hike

Rock varnish at Chaco Canyon National Historic Park
From the Peñasco Blanco hike
Rock varnish on lava at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site
From the Three Rivers Petroglyphs hike
Next stop, the rock gallery. Many sun-baked boulders around New Mexico are colored by a reddish brown layer that resembles paint. Upon closer inspection, you discover it's a dwelling place for many, many microscopic critters. These bacteria absorb trace amounts of manganese and iron from the atmosphere and precipitate it as a black layer of manganese and reddish brown iron oxide. This layer helps shield the bacteria against desiccation, extreme heat and intense solar radiation. This thin coating of manganese, iron, and clay may be only one hundredth of a millimeter in thickness, but sometimes covers an entire mountain range with black or reddish brown masterpieces. These microbes also, serve as a wonderful canvas for many ancient petroglyphs including the ones in Petroglyph National Monument.

Additional links for the curious mind:

Sarah Hamilton is an avid lover of the outdoors. She's originally from southern Ohio, and grew up in a wilderness area of Shawnee State Forest. She is currently pursuing a career as a physician's assistant, but she escapes the books often to hike, bike, camp, and explore the world.

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