Located in the heart of Coahuila in Northern Mexico, Cuatro Cienegas Valley features a unique combination of desert climate and freshwater ponds, something that caught the attention of NASA for the possibilities it opens.
By Beatriz Esquivel
This unique combination is not the only interesting feature of this national park, declared a Protected Area in 1994, but commercial endeavors close to it have put it at risk of disappearing, and the ponds are slowly drying out.
Surrounded by tall mountains and landlocked, Cuatro Cienegas Valley is an oasis in the middle of a desert with gypsum dunes -famous now as an adventure destination. On the other hand, the ponds are shallow bodies of water less than 30 feet deep, fed by the underground... The unique and fragile ecosystem that lives here is millions of years old.
According to a paper by Verónica Guerrero Mothelet (link in Spanish), Cuatro Cienegas is home to:
«23 endemic plant species and 54 animal species. A total of 77 species -including four amphibians and reptiles, seven crustaceous, eight fish, nine mollusks, one insect, and four scorpios; these species are only found here, nowhere else in the world».
However, if you count all the species, both animal and plants, that live in this small area, that number goes up to 1100, something that should make us think about the importance of preserving this ecosystem.
What makes this area even more important, and subject to studies by NASA among other entities, is the fact that it is something like a "time capsule", because in its midst live microorganisms that are millions of years old. This makes it one of the most valuable living records of how life on Earth evolved, and how the changes and processes our planet has been subjected to —i-e. Ice ages— have affected these microorganisms.
«Cuatrocienegas holds evidence of two very important events in the history of biodiversity in the world […]: the rise in O2 concentration in the atmosphere about 2400 millions of years; and the fact that this is the place where the zipper opened, which is the place where the earth cracked when the continent known as Pangea split up,» says Valeria Souza (link in Spanish), doctor and biologist at UNAM's Ecology Institute.
The first event —the increase in oxygen levels in the atmosphere— after thousands of years led to the appearance of the first microbes capable of photosynthesis, which in turn led to the appearance of stromatolites, clusters of microbes that layer up until they solidify and eventually petrify. The importance of these clusters of microbes is that they still can be found in their most ancient form in this area.
How well-preserved all these forms of life are in Cuatro Cienegas is what has led to the interest of several research institutes to use it as a natural lab, as the perfect scenario to replicate the conditions thought to exist in places such as Mars, with its arid climate and evidence of ancient water.
However, commercial activity in the area has led to the exploitation of close water reserves, which in turn affects the water level of the ponds, because the water gets sucked down to the underground caves that have been depleted by the industries.
The amount of rain the area receives has helped to keep the water level for many years, but the overuse of close-by water reserves is a threat to the ecological balance, and it could lead not only to the disappearance of said clusters of microorganisms, but also of larger species.
And that is why scientists such as Valeria Souza —who has become one of the most vocal defenders of this ecosystem— has proposed (link in Spanish) a plan to implement changes in the way the region's resources are handled, from closing all water wells in the surrounding areas, the closing of the nearby landfill, and shutting down a series of canals that are now useless; as well as an awareness campaign directed to both the public and authorities to highlight the importance of this place, unique not only for Mexico and for scientists, but for the whole world.
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