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Endemic Aquatic and Microbial Life Faces Extinction in Vanishing Mexican Oasis

A one of a kind oasis teeming with ancient life is on the verge of permantly drying up in the desert of northern Mexico, taking dozens of endemic aquatic species and potentially useful microbes down with it. Researchers say that time is running out for the Cuatro Cienegas Basin, as its water levels are receeding at an alarming rate, and parts of it have already vanished. “The Cuatro Cienegas Basin is probably the most diverse site on the microbial world,” stated the molecular biologist, Valeria Souza, in an interview with vagabondjourney.com

A one of a kind oasis teeming with ancient life is on the verge of permanently drying up in the desert of northern Mexico, taking dozens of endemic aquatic species and potentially useful microbes down with it. Researchers say that time is running out for the Cuatro Cienegas Basin, as its water levels are receding at an alarming rate, and parts of it have already vanished.

“The Cuatro Cienegas Basin is probably the most diverse site in the microbial world,” stated the molecular biologist, Valeria Souza, in an interview with vagabondjourney.com, “it is . . . a hot spot of endemism and diversity of fishes, molluscs, shrimps and diatoms.” Souza further described the 40 kilometer long stretch of springs, streams, and pools that make up the basin as, “an oasis in the desert a “unique time capsule,” that . . . hosts ancient forms of marine microbial life that have evolved and persisted over the past 3.5 billion years.”

Souza has been doing research in the region since 2000, and asserts that this rare oasis in the Chihuahuan desert provides a window back into the origins of life on earth. “Layered bacterial communities have thrived in Cuatro Cienegas . . . for the last 220 million years,” Souza wrote in an article for Natural History magazine. These communities once inhabited the shallow waters of the ocean that divided the northern and southern continents of Pangaea. Over million of years the area rose out of the sea, but the bacterial communities were able to survive, feeding off of mineral rich springs. Today, the descendants of these ancient bacterial colonies — examples of some of the earliest life on earth — still exist at Cuatro Cienegas.

Before and after photo of Cuatro Cienegas pool Churince. Photos by Valeria Souza.

Apart from these extremely rare ancient bacterial mats, Cuatro Cienegas also hosts over 70 aquatic species that are not found anywhere else on earth, including the world’s only known aquatic box turtle. “Its wonders do not stop there,” Souza continued, “most of the aquatic organisms are still marine even if the Phantalassa ocean entered the site 220 mya and left 35 mya. Even more so, molecular clock on Bacillus and cyanobacteria from CCB [Cuatro Cienegas Basin] show that these unique microbes represent a direct line of descent from creatures dating as far back as the Precambrian and its gypsum dunes represent an analog of Mars.”

Yes, Mars, the planet.

The microbes in the pools of the Cuatro Cienagas Basis are thought to be a window not only back into the early life on earth but that which could have inhabited some of the craters of Mars. ” The hardy anoxic Bacilli as well as the methanogens and the green and purple sulfur bacteria are a better possibility [of being similar to what scientists may find to have existed on Mars], since we know for sure there was no oxygen production in Mars, while sulfur, dim light and CO2 were more possible sources of nutrients in early Mars and all those microbes can easily survive the harsh salty cold conditions that we know are common in the red planet,” Souza stated. Tomorrow, November 25, NASA is scheduled to launch a rover to Mars that is equipped with a laboratory to investigate a crater that is described as being similar to the Churince pool in the Cuatro Cienegas Basin. Souza was invited to attend the launch.

Though protected by the Mexican government since 1994, the Cuatro Cienagas Basin is now in danger of drying up, and its plethora of endemic lifeforms disappearing with the water. There are currently many threats to this unique ecosystem, including livestock grazing, the removal of trees, cactus gathering, poaching, the extraction of gypsum, habitat transformation, and tourism. Though the main threat does not come from the surface, but deep below it. The aquifers of the region are being over-exploited by large dairy farms who have converted parts of the desert into lush fields of alfalfa to feed their cows.

“The over exploitation of the aquifer continues and the most divergent and important site called Churince is dying fast,” Souza told vagabondjourney.com. “At the current rate of over exploitation of this ancient oasis I do not think that the majority of the microbial mats and stromatolites (home of the vast microbial diversity at CCB) can survive 2 more years.”

Churince was once one of the largest and most remarkable of the pools at Cuatro Cienegas. It was once over a kilometer across and meter deep. Today, Churince is, in the words of another researcher, “basically dead.” Large parts of it have literally dried up. Looking over the data charts of water level measurements taken at various points in the pool in August, terms such as normal but reduced flow, normal but stagnant, or even appeared normal were recorded, but in October, just two months later, a different set of terms were used to describe the same points: stagnant, nearly dry, and dry. The Churince pool in Cuatro Cienegas is, for all intensive purposes, is just about gone. A variety of marine life very likely extirpated along with it, including the Cuatro Cienegas Shiner, the Cuatro Ceinegas Gambusia, and the Mexican Banded Springsnail — all species which only exist in the pools and springs of the Cuatro Cienegas Basin.

Before and after photo of Churince pool at Cuatro Cienegas

According to Conagua, Mexico’s water authority, all nine aquafirs in the Cuatro Cienegas area are being over exploited, with vastly more water being extracted from them than rain water can replenish each year. “The water right at the region is not regulated,” Souza claimed, “it is called libre alumbramiento.” The result is that the water level in the aquafirs are lowering and the springs and rivers which give life to the Cuatro Cienegas ecosystem are drying up fast. The endemic fish, bacteria, and other species which live there are likewise on the verge of following the pools into extinction.

The largest user of aquifer water in the region are massive dairy farming and ranching operations. In an estimate published on IPS News, there are half a million dairy cows in the Cuatro Cienegas region which pump out seven million liters of milk per day. In Mexico, it takes approximately 2,500 liters of water to produce one liter of milk. As is evident, commercial water usage in this region — which is naturally a desert — is extensive.

Though the issue is not just the fact that industrial dairy farms are using the aquifers to water crops to feed their cows, but that many of them are choosing to cultivate alfalfa for this purpose — rather than corn or other more sustainable alternatives. When compared to other feed crops, alfalfa requires vastly more water resources, so much so that it is felt that the choice of cultivating this feed crop over others is what is currently pushing the Cuatro Cienegas reserve to the brink of extinction.

These dead fish show how quickly Churince dried up. Photo by Valeria Souza.

Though there are some options in sight to help curb this excessive usage of water. The dairy giant, LALA, has already made a shift to help preserve the Cuatro Cienegas Basin by feeding their cows a mix of corn derived from biodiesel production and left over sugar beets rather than alfalfa. “[The cows] do not need to eat alfalfa,” Sousa stated, “. . . the idea is to have green houses with hydroponia and high value crops instead of thirsty alfalfa.”

Other conservation efforts are being made by Souza herself. She devised a bold program that is designed to economically benefit the people living in the Cuatro Cienegas region by given them a cut of the earnings gained from the patenting and commercial sale of the basin’s genetic material. “My team is initiating something we call Science for the People,” she stated, “were the revenues of the usage of the genetic resources of the microbial mats will return to the Cuatro Cienegas Basin population in exchange for conservation.” This is truly a pioneering move by Souza, which puts into action the policies of the Nagoya Protocol years before their actual implementation. By doing this, Souza hopes to provide the people in the region with an additional way to economically benefit from the land as well as an incentive to preserve the oasis.

Not even Souza, who was among the first scientists to recognize the significance of the bacteria mats, knows what could come of research in the Cuatro Cienegas Basin as far as the potential medical or commercial use of the unique genetic material found there, let alone the advancement of our understanding of early life on this planet as well as others. But unless industrial water usage practices in the valleys surrounding the basin rapidly change we may never know what may come from these investigations. It is estimated that in only a couple of years from now most of the pools in the basin will go the way of Churince, and an ancient ecosystem will be “basically dead.”

For the ongoing story of the conservation efforts at the Cuatro Cienegas Basin, visit Valeria Souza’s blog in English, or En Cuatro Cienegas El Aqua lo es Todo in Spanish. She urges everyone to sign the online petition found there. 

Filed under: Conservation, Deserts, Environment, Mexico, Wildlife

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3469 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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4 comments… add one

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  • Jack November 25, 2011, 1:15 pm

    Wow, those photos are incredible! It is amazing how quickly places that have survived for millions of years can be lost forever.

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  • Harold D November 25, 2011, 1:17 pm

    This is our modern times for ya. Why don’t the dairy farmers all just switch feed crops? Seems so easy. I think a lot of petty conflict occurs between businesses and conservation on principle, and meanwhile places like this are lost.

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  • Tim November 25, 2011, 5:42 pm

    Recently your posts have gotten much longer and more developed, I am very impressed. Keep it up I dig it!

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    • Wade Shepard November 26, 2011, 11:38 am

      Thanks! Much appreciated. These are the types of articles that I enjoy publishing most.

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