Small discovery: Interns find tiny crustaceans living in thermal water

Research and field work recently uncovered species of a crustacean previously undocumented inside of Hot Springs National Park.

HSNP interns Paul Solis, of Los Angeles, and Meg O'Connor, of Baton Rogue, La., have identified a handful of new species of Ostracod, or "seed shrimp," in the park's thermal waters. The identifications came as a result of the two spending the summer months carefully locating, sampling and documenting the waters.

"This water, you touch it with your hand, it practically burns you," Solis said. "Now we know that organisms actually thrive in these locations."

Ostracod is a class of microscopic crustacean in the "extremophile" category, meaning the species tend to thrive in extreme conditions. A news release noted the interns' research has led to the discovery of at least five species of Ostracod not previously located in the park, along with the rediscovery of two species previously located in the park. Their research also discovered organisms such as rotifers and snails "about the size of a grain of sand" in the thermal waters.

O'Connor said their research efforts were born out of previous studies about microorganisms in the park. She cited a study "about 10 years ago" that had identified the ostracods reconfirmed through their research.

"The work hasn't really been followed up on," O'Connor said.

O'Connor said the research was fascinating for them because they were able to compare it to the historic records.

"If what we're finding is different than what they found, that tells us something, and if it's the same as what they found, that tells us something," she said.

Solis said most of the samples they took are from pools of thermal water that have formed by drainage gates throughout the park. One of the most abundant sampling sites was found in the former site of the Government Free Bath House, where a pool is located on the side of a hill next to the Grand Promenade.

"(It's) something that was kind of man-made halfway," Solis said. "It's thermal water, but it's natural organisms, so it's kind of created a habitat for them, and they kind of found their way to that little pool of water, and are actually thriving there."

The sampling process included the two interns gently taking a sample of water, bacteria and plant life from the pool, measuring the sampling area's size and temperature and keeping a data sheet that included these observations along with date, time and weather.

Once the sample was successfully taken, it was observed and documented under a microscope at HSNP's headquarters building.

"You don't know what's in there until you actually get it under a microscope," Solis said. "The more time you put it under a microscope, the more you discover."

Solis, who returned to Los Angeles on Friday, left the project in the hands of O'Connor, who will continue the research in the park for another two months. He said the research has transitioned from sampling and general identification to a much more specific identification that requires assessment from Ostracod experts.

"We know quite a bit about the origins here, but we're not experts," he said. "We need help from people that understand exactly what they're looking at, all the body parts and everything that they're able to identify just through a microscope. Then from there, if we can get any DNA analysis, people that have access to a lab, then someone can conduct it on a molecular level."

"I'm extremely excited to keep digging into this research, and getting ideas on these organisms and learning more about the conditions that they're thriving in, and how our park creates a unique environment for these organisms," O'Connor said.

Solis said he hopes visitors can eventually enjoy learning about the microorganisms once they are fully researched.

"We're finding these little organisms in the water, something that's understudied," he said. "I feel like that kind of just adds another layer, something of interest, to this park."

Local on 08/14/2017