Some like it hot

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Science  16 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6318, pp. 1366-1368
DOI: 10.1126/science.354.6318.1366

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The Lut Desert, a tract of sand and fantastical rock formations in southeastern Iran, is one of the hottest places on Earth. Many researchers had assumed that the desert's interior, mostly devoid of vegetation, is too hostile to sustain life. But adventurers and the occasional scientist who traveled into the Lut had spotted diverse animal life, including insects, reptiles, and desert foxes. How such a food web would hold together without plants has been a mystery. A few years ago, scientists in Iran began wondering whether migratory birds flying off course stray into the Lut and, overcome by the intense heat, fall from the sky like manna, forming the base of a food web. Last month, scientists from Iran, Germany, and the United States ventured into the heart of the desert to test this idea. The team confirmed the existence of a vibrant ecosystem and brought back compelling evidence that migratory birds sustain it. They also found that the bone-dry landscape conceals what they are calling a "hidden sea": a surprisingly shallow layer of salty groundwater that may help sustain life.

  • * Photography by Bahman Izadi