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Sea Monkeys, Burning Man, and Vernal Pools

March Fairy Shrimp.jpg

By Kevin Andros, Environmental Educator

How can any of the things in the title be connected? I’m glad you asked. March is a real turning point in the seasons. The scale tips from cold and dreary to bright and hopeful, although some years this happens like a seesaw rather than a gradual shift. The start of spring is often characterized by new beginnings in the natural world. Migraters return in droves, the breeding season begins for many species, and spring ephemeral plants emerge. That word ephemeral is also a perfect descriptor for the connecting factor of “Sea Monkeys, Burning Man, and Vernal Pools”, the fairy shrimp! 

Fairy shrimp are a group of 300+ species (including brine shrimp) that make up the order Anostraca. Anostracans are crustaceans that are mostly freshwater species who eat bacteria and small pieces of organic matter. This group lives across the world in vernal pools and hypersaline lakes from the Andes to Antarctic ice to deserts. They have evolved to thrive in temporary bodies of water. Their eggs are able to enter a dormant state with the potential to last for centuries and endure freezing temperatures, radiation, and even the vacuum of space. They even have adapted so that not every egg hatches the same year which protects the population if one year has particularly rough conditions.   

Even if you have never heard of “fairy shrimp” before you might have had them as a pet! They were sold as “Sea Monkeys”. I’ll admit this is more likely if you were someone ordering things from the back of comic books in the 60s or 70s but if that doesn’t describe you then maybe you are familiar with their appearance in pop culture. Fairy shrimp have shown up in Phineas and Ferb, Rugrats, and even Dilbert. “Instant Life” was how they were advertised at the time, but the science behind it was that they sold eggs of an Anostracan species, Artemia salina. If you combined the eggs with water, a packet of water conditioner, and a packet of food, then your “pet” came to life. There is a lot of interesting history behind Sea Monkeys involving secret dye, invisible goldfish, controversy, and lawsuits but that gets us very off topic so I suggest you continue down that rabbit hole on your own if you choose. However, Sea Monkeys are a great example of the marvels of fairy shrimp.

More proof of the amazing capabilities of fairy shrimp is the aptly named Giant Fairy Shrimp. It consumes other Anostracans rather than organic material. These fairy shrimp had their 15 minutes of fame after Burning Man 2023. If you haven’t heard of burning man, it is a week-long festival in the middle of a desert that brings in tens of thousands of people to make a temporary city. It occurs on a dry lakebed which sets the perfect stage for fairy shrimp to make an appearance. During 2023, the festival was inundated with up to 1 inch of rain, a colossal amount for a dry lakebed. The muddy conditions caused chaos for attendees who were forced to shelter in place but it also made the desert just right for the 7+ inch long Giant Fairy Shrimp to hatch. These giant creatures only live for about 6 weeks in ideal conditions in order to lay eggs for the next rain.

In Woodcock Nature Center’s vernal pools we have found our very own fairy shrimp! In April of 2023 we had the pleasure to discover that they had emerged from their winter rest. The species we have here in Connecticut is no giant or carnivore, rather they are Springtime Fairy Shrimp (Eubranchipus vernalis), pictured above. They are 1-2 centimeters and live for 2 weeks to a couple of months if conditions stay ideal. We were very lucky to see them gracefully swimming, in their unique upside down manner, eating away at decaying leaves. Hopefully this year the perfect conditions will be met again for us to see this mystical group of crustaceans. Keep an eye on your vernal pools this March and April to see if you can find any of these fantastical fleeting creatures. 




Read more Notes From A Naturalist...

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