The walls have ears

    Have you ever felt an unknown presence? Someone or something nearby but you just can't see them or hear them? In Beacon Valley the walls don't have ears (probably) but they are filled with organisms you can't see.


    That's because the sandstone of the remote Beacon Valley harbors microorganism communities know as endoliths. Endoliths are creatures that live in rocks where they can make food from the chemicals there or from the sunlight that passes through the quarts grains. In the rock, they have the nutrient resources to occasionally grow when temperature are high enough or water is available. They also have walls of silica to protect them from the especially harsh ultraviolet radiation underneath the ozone hole.

    There are probably forms of endoliths in most places around the world. What makes them unique in Beacon Valley is that they are virtually the only living things. Beacon Valley is one of the coldest and driest of the Dry Valleys. Thats saying something. Living here is living on the very edge of possible.

    When we traveled to Beacon Valley to conduct some soil sampling I didn't realize I would be making a video about it. It was windy and super cold. I also hadn't learned about endoliths until the day before so I wasn't sure what I was doing. Let's call it "exploration". If I could do it over I would do one of those great reveal videos as I heroically cracked open the perfect rock, exposing an astonishing unseen endolithic miracle. Instead, I took some hard to hear video, a few pictures and an impromptu helo video as we left. Still, give it a watch and maybe you will learn about why NASA considers this place the closest Earth analogue to Mars. Here is a picture of the part of the valley we surveyed.

    The floor of Beacon Valley
    The floor of Beacon Valley.

    Do you think Mars could harbor the same types of organisms? Let me know!

    McMurdo Station, Antarctica
    Weather Summary
    Overcast with snow
    Wind Speed
    SE @ 18 with gusts to 22
    Wind Chill


    Thomas Goeckeritz

    Hey Bill, I was just wondering how do Edoliths survive Beacon Valley if nothing else can, and if they can why can't anything else.

    Stephen Jacobs

    How do the edoliths manage to survive in such harsh climates?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Stephen- They have a variety of ways- the first, of course- is that they are protected by layers of rock! The most deadly thing is actually ultraviolet radiation. The rock protects the DNA from damage which allows the organisms to grow and reproduce as water and heat become available.

    Ceci Rayburn

    Hi Mr. Henske! Do the Edoliths have something other microorganisms don't have that allows them to survive and collect their nutrients and such in nonideal conditions or have they just been able to adapt and other organisms haven't?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Ceci- The cells have protection from drying and radiation. The little spaces in the rock hold humid air longer that outside the rock where moisture quickly evaporates in the dry air. There are also minerals in the rock that some of the organisms can actually use as energy (chemosynthesis) or as parts for growth. They may also receive more direct heating at certain times. It isn't that it is a good place to live, it's that things can live there. So- enough moisture, sunlight, uv protection, energy. They grow very slowly. The cells may reproduce every year or every 1000 years but that's "good enough" in this environment that is more similar to Mars than to the rest of the planet.


    Seen any shoggoths or elder things out there? Have you read at the moutains of madness? Are the mountains there?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Owen- no- definitely too cold and dry for those here. Your eyes do play trick on you though and occasionally you will think you saw an animal, but of course, there aren't any (except microscopic).

    Jake Rhoads

    Hey Mr. Henske,
    Endoliths sound really interesting! I'm wondering how they take the minerals and sunlight and make food, is it similar to photosynthesis?
    It's really interesting that they have a wall of silica to protect them, it's like UV sunscreen haha.
    Anyway, I hope you are having a great time!
    Thanks, Jake
    P.S: How's the sandwich doing?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Jake- thats what a lot of scientists are interested in. There are other pathways that allow organisms to take gases like methane and CO2 and use them as energy sources instead of light. This is called chemosynthesis- where food is made from chemicals in the environment. Some research has estimated that there are more chemosynthetic organisms in polar environments than photosynthetic- which really changes the way we think about cycles of matter. One thing that can happen to your sandwich is that it blows away. Leaving things that don't belong is a big NO NO here so I didnt leave any sandwiches :)

    Robert Busby

    What is the most sample of worms you found in the smallest sample?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Mr Busby-
    We have found many samples of soil with nothing living in it. It could be that it was too dry or too full of salts to allow life. We have other samples that have over 10,000 animals living in them These are samples where there was moss or a lot of cyanobacteria and liquid water. Those are the worst ones to count- they might take over an hour to do just one half of the sample (after they get into the 100s for certain animals we just double it when we are halfway done) We had one sample that had 8000 rotifers!