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Earth's Weirdest Landscapes: Mono Lake, California

10 otherworldly destinations for your bucket list

Text by Melissa Pandika

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At first glance, California's Mono Lake seems eerily barren. Twisting limestone pinnacles, called tufa towers, line its shores, some reaching heights of over 30 feet. Tufa towers grow only underwater, but Los Angeles' diversion of Mono Lake's tributary streams beginning in 1941 exposed the gnarled formations. Mono Lake, which is at least 760,000 years old, has no outlet to the ocean, causing salt to accumulate and create harsh alkaline conditions. Yet, oddly enough, Mono Lake hosts a flourishing ecosystem based on tiny brine shrimp, which feed the more than 2 million migratory birds that nest there each year.

In 2010, NASA astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon reported discovering bacteria in Mono Lake's arsenic sediments that could incorporate the toxic element into their DNA instead of phosphorous, normally a key building block of the double helix. For the most part, the new species' weirdness survived the scrutiny of two 2012 studies that debunked Wolfe-Simon's findings. Their conclusion? Mono Lake's "alien" bacteria do need phosphorous, but at surprisingly low amounts.


 


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