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Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake.

Michael Werner was one of the many Utah residents who fled to the state’s sprawling parks and public lands in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic led to shutdowns of gathering places all over the state, leaving very few activities available outside of home.

He had just started his job as an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Utah and decided to take up hiking after the pandemic closed the university’s lab for months on end. That led him to Antelope Island, where he stumbled across educational signage teaching visitors that brine shrimp and brine flies are the only species living in the Great Salt Lake because of its unique saline ecosystem.

Being an expert on nematodes, he wondered if that was true.

Nematodes, otherwise known as roundworms, are one of the world’s most abundant animal classifications. There are more than 250,000 known nematode species, including in the deep ocean, arid climates and anything and everything in between.

“Nematodes are a nearly ubiquitous group of organisms found in all sorts of environments. Some of those environments are very extreme,” he said, recalling that day almost four years ago. “So I thought, ‘Maybe nobody has taken a close look?’”

His question sparked conversations with lake experts and new lake studies. After a few years of research, he and other University of Utah researchers confirmed his hunch. Nematodes live in the Great Salt Lake, along with brine shrimp and brine flies, and have a role in the lake’s ecosystem that is not yet fully understood.

Their findings, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, also note that the Great Salt Lake is now the saltiest body of water known to contain the species.

A new Great Salt Lake discovery

Once inspiration struck, Werner started consulting with Bonnie Baxter, a biology professor at Westminster University, and BYU biology professor Byron Adams, experts on the Great Salt Lake and nematodes, respectively. There wasn’t much available to prove nematodes didn’t exist in the lake, but researchers had also never found them.

Finding nematodes was much easier said than done. Werner estimates it took about six months between the origin of the study and the moment the first nematodes were found. The biggest breakthrough happened when he went back to Adams and asked how to extract the species from extreme parts of the world.

Werner also brought his hypothesis to his students. Julie Jung, a postdoctoral researcher at the U.’s School of Biological Sciences and the study’s lead author, remembers being sold right away when Werner approached her about the project.

She, Werner and a group of other researchers descended on three sites at the Great Salt Lake’s southern arm in the spring of 2021: the southern end of Fremont Island, the northern end of Antelope Island and a spot in between. Applying Adams’ method, the team found bunches of nematodes that year.

Werner still remembers the thrill when a group member yelled “I found one!” in the lab after a successful trip. Others chimed in with their own discoveries soon after.

“That was a really exciting evening,” he said.

Nematodes and the ecosystem

Almost all of the nematodes found in the Great Salt Lake came from the Monhysteridae family, considered an ancient branch of the species’ phylum associated with deep-sea and hydrothermal conditions, the researchers say. They add, it’s a branch known to adapt to extreme habitats. None have been discovered in the lake’s northern arm, so far.

That wasn’t the only finding, though. A few months after the initial discovery, Jung tested another theory. She discovered thousands of nematodes while hammering through samples of microbialites. This discovery seemed to show some connection between nematodes and microbialites, bacterial mats that play a vital part in the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem.

The connection between the two is not as clear, but both Werner and Jung say the new findings open more research opportunities. Some of this is already underway.

They believe the finding ultimately creates many new questions. Where do these nematodes come from? How do the nematodes survive in the Great Salt Lake? Are nematodes helping build the lake’s microbialites?

“We’re very much at the beginning,” Werner said. “Just knowing that there are three and not two animals is a pretty transformative (and) important finding. Now we’re trying to figure out, what is their role in the environment and the ecology of the Great Salt Lake?”

The team has some anecdotal evidence that suggests the lake’s decline may impact the species, a serendipitous finding if confirmed. Most of the work came as the lake reached all-time lows and the group switched from kayaking to biking to sites as the project continued, Jung said. The team also found more nematodes in 2021 than in 2022.

The researchers say the findings may even help understand the survivability of organisms on other planets with extreme climate conditions, such as Mars. They point out that the planet may have even looked like the lake during its “waning days of water.”

It’s something they plan to add to the pile of unanswered questions.

However, their research has at least changed what was known about the lake’s ecosystem. It also proves it’s livelier than initially thought.

“I think people look at the lake and hear (about) the lake as this kind of stinky, lifeless place in our backyard, but it’s so much more than that,” Jung said. “The more you look the more you find.”

Contributing: Shelby Lofton