The Burning Man Flood Brought to Life These Prehistoric Creatures

With nearly an inch of rain flooding the Nevada desert in less than a week, three-eyed “dinosaurs” and shrimp as long as a human hand began popping up in temporary pools during this year’s Burning Man festival.

The scene that unfolded at this year’s Burning Man was apocalyptic; it also doubled as a sliding glass window into our future defined by the climate crisis. The unusual late-summer storm brought nearly an inch of rain — at least 0.8 inches, to be exact — from Friday to early Saturday morning. This rainfall amount is what the arid area normally receives over the course of two to three months.

It’s little wonder then why this past weekend’s deluge left the temporarily erected Burning Man city inside the Black Rock Desert slick with mud, trapping its estimated 80,000 festival attendees in a primordial ooze. (I person died; President Biden was briefed on the disaster.)

Thankfully, the conditions cleared earlier Monday, and the enacted shelter-in-place order was lifted at 2 p.m., creating a mass exodus of attendees. Satellite footage published in Axios shows a long line of hundreds of vehicles feeling the sudden swampland in search of drier ground.

(FYI: Burning Man is hosted on the prehistoric Lake Lahontan, a dry lakebed — colloquially known as “the playa.” The arid AF ground of the playa is made up of alkaline dust, which can cause a niche coughing condition known as “playa lung” that usually resolves in a few days or weeks once outside the empty lake.)

Though the festival ended on September 4th, festival officials have urged attendees to delay travel until Tuesday, September 5th, if possible. And for those who’ve stuck around, perhaps they’ll get to see one of nature’s most resilient, haunting subsets of creatures that date back 220 million years: vernal pool shrimp, specifically tadpole and fairy shrimps.

These crustaceans belong to a family of extremophiles capable of surviving droughts lasting well over a decade, sitting dormant with their encased eggs that only hatch in the presence of water.

For Burners this past weekend, festival-goers were treated to an assortment of these shrimps. Tadpole shrimp, also known as “triops” in the pet trade, resemble miniature horseshoe crabs. Unlike the ocean-going crab, these freshwater shrimp have three eyes, instead of ten. These shrimps are also among the most voracious and carnivorous of the vernal ship species… infamous for their insatiable appetite and ability to consume other shrimp species and even small fish.

Another smaller fairy shrimp species was also observed among the spontaneous fauna. But some Burners were treated to a truly spectacular sight — a freshwater shrimp the size of a human hand. 

Giant fairy shrimps are, as their name would suggest, massive. In fact, these are the largest and longest vernal pool shrimps known since, capable of stretching over 7 inches long. For the lucky ones that manage to see these animals IRL, count your lucky stars; tadpole shrimps and fairy shrimps need somewhat substantial rain to hatch and thrive, which was exactly what this weekend’s rare summertime rainstorm in the Black Rock Desert afforded.

Alas, the lifespan of these prehistoric creatures is short, only living for about six weeks before dying and becoming mummified in the very same mud they hatched from. During those few weeks, they grow and mature at a dizzying rate — consuming about 3% of their body weight in organic biomass every day, which is coincidentally on par with the amount humans eat a day — and can produce some three dozen offspring, each encapsulated in a thick-shelled, near-microscopic egg.

It’s those descendants that will likely hatch sometime next year when rains return — perhaps at next year’s Burning Man festival, too. 

(In the meantime, get yourself acquainted with how the SF Bay Area played a *major role* in creating Sea-Monkeys… which are very closely related to these different prehistoric shrimps.)

Feature image: Courtesy of iNaturalist via [at]faerthen

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