8 Small Creatures That Have Big Impacts

http://www.pnas.org/content/110/18/7107/F1.expansion.html Source: Pnas.org

Microorganisms are tiny creatures that can often only be seen with a microscope or magnifying lens. But even though they’re incredibly small, they often cover huge areas in nearly every conceivable environment. They’re found living in soil, in water, in hot thermal vents on the ocean floor where no sunlight can reach, and even high up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists around the world have spent their entire lives studying just one or a handful of these microorganisms, and now, thanks to their research, we’re beginning to understand just how significant their presence is. These are eight small creatures that have big impacts on the planet.

8. Wasps

Wasps tend to get a a bad reputation as evil insects because of their aggressive nature and propensity to inject other animals with eggs that hatch and then devour the organism from the inside (the inspiration for the movie Alien). But what you might not know is that wasps actually eat a lot of grapes and other yeast-covered wild fruits. While in a wasp’s stomach, the yeast stays just as it is and doesn’t degrade or transform into something else, even throughout winter hibernation, until the wasp is ready to regurgitate it to provide food for its larvae.

It is widely believed that this wasp behavior played a vital role in the spread of wild yeasts throughout the world and is likely the primary reason why our ancestors discovered fermentation in the first place. So the next time you’re enjoying a cold beer on a hot day, or a glass of wine after work, remember to thank the wasps.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polistes_dominula Source: En.wikipedia.org

7. Krill

Krill is probably best known for being a major food source for animals like whales, seals and penguins, but research has shown that when these tiny crustaceans swim together in large groups, their motion causes eddies in the water. These eddies have the effect of mixing together different ocean layers by dredging up deep water while simultaneously pulling down surface water. As a result, the deeper waters that are rich in food get brought up to the shallow oxygenated waters where larger marine animals can feed. So, not only are krill an even greater linchpin in the aquatic food chain than was once thought, they might also be responsible for some ocean currents as well.

http://www.schiffmegared.co.uk/what-is-krill/ Source: Schiffmegared.co.uk

6. Ice-Nucleating Bacteria

Some bacteria might actually have the power to make it rain. According to microbiologists, certain bacteria have what is referred to as an ice-nucleating protein covering their exterior membranes. As this bacteria gets blown through the air and up into the atmosphere, it galvanizes the formation of ice crystals which, in turn, leads to rainfall. The bacteria then falls back to the ground in a rain drop and is ready to start the cycle all over again once conditions turn favorable. However, the journey these bacteria go on isn’t just a quick trip up and down. Many of these ice-nucleating bacteria originate in places with arctic and sub-arctic climates, like the Yukon and the French Alps, then get carried all over the world by global rainfall patterns.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioprecipitation Source: En.wikipedia.org

5. Earthworms

Earthworms play a critical role in breaking down dead organic matter in a process known as decomposition. Decomposition releases nutrients stored in dead plants and animals and makes them available for use by living plants. Earthworms facilitate this by eating organic matter and breaking it down into smaller parts that bacteria and fungi can feed on, thereby releasing the nutrients trapped inside. But worms do a lot more than just decompose organic matter, in truth, they act a lot like blood vessels transporting vital materials throughout the human body. They’re responsible for mixing soil layers and incorporating organic matter into the dirt. Charles Darwin referred to earthworms as “nature’s ploughs” because this mixing improves the fertility of the soil by allowing the organic matter to be dispersed through the ground so the nutrients held in it become available to bacteria, fungi and plants.

http://www.zmescience.com/science/biology/earthworm-science-soil-05082015/ Source: Zmescience.com

4. Vitamin-Producing Bacteria

Our gut microbiota contains tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1,000 different species of known bacteria. One of the most important varieties for our continued well-being are the groups of bacteria responsible for making vitamin B12. These little guys have a symbiotic relationship with plants and graciously produce an abundant supply of vitamin B12, which makes its way into our bodies and those of other animals when the plant is ingested. If vitamin B12-producing bacteria were to go extinct or cease functioning properly, countless plant and animal species would no longer be able to survive.

http://www.raw-food-health.net/VitaminB12Deficiency.html Source: Raw-food-health.net

3. Bacteriophages

Sure, some bacteria do nice things like produce essential vitamins, but what about all those other harmful bacteria like E. coli running around? To combat the potentially deadly bacterias that manage to find their way into our bodies, it is believed that humans co-evolved with protective viruses known as bacteriophages that infect and destroy specific bacteria that would otherwise harm us. Humans certainly aren’t the only species to form this type of symbiotic relationship with viruses though. Practically every animal larger than a peanut is likely to be protected by an invisible army of viruses.

https://uncloaked.wordpress.com/2014/08/08/the-undead-assasains-living-in-your-body-bacteriophages/ Source: Uncloaked.wordpress.com

2. Phytoplankton

Phytoplankton rank even lower than krill in the ocean’s food chain. But the lower a species is on the food chain, the more important it is in terms of survival for all the species above it. As such, we should be extremely interested in keeping phytoplankton around since it not only forms the basis of the global food chain, but is also responsible for producing half of the oxygen we breathe. Sure, trees do their part, but its a specific type of phytoplankton known as Prochlorococcus that’s actually the most abundant photosynthetic element on Earth. The presence of Prochlorococcus is one of the reasons climate change needs to be taken seriously and addressed, since minor changes to their ocean habitat (such as a change in temperature) could wipe out entire populations and leave the planet gasping for breath.

http://www.pnas.org/content/110/18/7107/F1.expansion.html Source: Pnas.org

1. Termites

Another vital component making up the Earth’s atmosphere is nitrogen. In fact, nitrogen composes roughly 78% of all our air and it’s used to make things like protein and DNA, which are essential to all life. This is where termites come in. Termites do more than just eat wood and degrade the value of our homes, their guts are filled with special nitrogen-fixing bacteria. As termites move through the soil, they distribute nitrogen, which then gets into the plants that use the soil, which then gets into animals who eat the plants. Without nitrogen in the soil, humans would never be able to grow enough food to support our ever-increasing population.

http://www.pestworldforkids.org/pest-guide/termites/ Source: Pestworldforkids.org

Wes Walcott

Wes Walcott

Wes is a devourer of media. He ravenously consumes podcasts, books, and TV shows with seemingly no regard for review scores or subject matter. If encountered in the wild, Wes is said to respond positively to verbal cues relating to X-Men or the SNES. The subject can be easily captured and tamed using Transformers or Gundam models.