In Hot Water....Again!

“WOW! Brilliant! Gorgeous! Stunning! I can’t believe these colors! Oh, I’ll just take one more photograph—-well, make that another twenty photographs—-before I have to move on!” During a late Spring visit to the crown jewel in the United States’ national park system, Yellowstone National Park, I quickly ran out of superlatives to describe the vibrant colors associated with Yellowstone’s geothermal hot spring and geyser features. My eyes and memory chips could not get enough of their abstract compositions and beauty.

Grand Prismatic Spring and bacterial mats, Yellowstone National Park

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park. The vivid coloration ringing this magnificent geothermal pool is the produce of thermophilic bacteria.

Situated atop a massive seething volcanic caldera, Yellowstone National Park generates endlessly fascinating geothermal volcanic phenomena. Volcanic features ranging from eruptive geysers to roiling, boiling mudpots, roaring steamy fumeroles and hot pools so vibrantly colored they defy description demonstrate the raw beauty of Nature. What particularly impressed me are thermophilic bacterial features associated with geothermal activity. Thermophiles are heat-loving organisms that survive in temperatures ranging from 45 degrees C (113 degrees Fahrenheit) to as high as 80 degrees C (176 degrees Fahrenheit).1 Intensely hot water runoff laden with chemicals and minerals from volcanic thermal springs and geyser eruptions creates a happy haven for thermophilic bacteria, the organism responsible for much of the brilliant coloration found in and around Yellowstone’s geothermal features.

Biscuit Basin thermophilic community, Yellowstone National Park

Developing in a variety of forms, thermophiles organize into communities such as streamers, “long, flexible structures…in the fast-flowing water of runoff channels”2 or “mats or layers of archaeal and bacterial communities that are adapted to specific temperature and light conditions within the mat. Thermophylic bacteria and archaea are often brightly colored by photosynthetic pigments (chlorophylls or carotenoids) and show distinct zonations according to their specific temperature tolerances.” 2 (Note: archaea are “ancient microorganisms that some scientists now regard as a separate kingdom of life.”)4 Hot springs’ polychromatic bacterial mats sported vivid hues of rust, ochre, lemon yellow, olive green and black that attest to thriving communities of thermophiles.

Thermophilic feature at Biscuit Basin, Yellowstone National Park

The first thermophile to be recognized, Thermus aquaticus was discovered in 1966 by Dr. Thomas Brock living in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. Since then, many other thermophilic bacteria have been identified in environments ranging from geothermal pools to fumaroles to deep sea volcanic vents. Depending not only in excessively hot life-giving water, some of these amazing microorganisms prosper where there are “high levels of sulfur or calcium carbonate, acidic water, or alkaline springs,” 3 for instance, an active geothermal environment such as Yellowstone.

What makes thermophiles particularly valuable to biotechnology and us are their extremozymes, enzymes adapted not to break down in high heat. Unlike other less tolerant enzymes that would catastrophically collapse in a high heat environment, extremozymes enable thermophilic cell membranes to remain stable even when subjected to extremely high temperatures. 3 This has proven invaluable to many things we depend upon today, from high heat washing agents to soft drink sweeteners to DNA fingerprinting.

Sunset Lake, Black Sand Basin, Yellowstone National Park

Dazzled by spectacular Old Faithful and other geysers’ eruptions, it is easy to simply walk past these lowly yet colorful geothermal thermophiles without giving them much of a passing nod. Recognizing the biotechnological importance of lowly thermophilic bacteria brings a new level of appreciation to gazing onto the multi-colored beauty of Yellowstone’s geothermal features. Yet for me, I confess to happily leaving science behind for a moment to savor the vivid coloration and pattern of thermophilic features that evoke a deeply enthusiastic “WOW!”

Black Pool, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Natiional Park. The white geyserite, or sinter—-“a mineral deposit with a porous or vesicular texture” 5—-provides counterpoint to the orange bacterial mat and vivid turquoise of the hot spring.

1) “Thermophile,” WIkipedia,

2) “Yellowstone National Park,” Microbial LIfe Educational Resources,

3) Heather Beal, Montana State University, “Microbial Life in Extremely Hot Environments,” Microbial LIfe Educational Resources,

4) “Forecast: Hot and humid,” Brave New Biosphere,

5) Britannica Online Encyclopedia,

It is my sincere wish that visitors to my portfolio experience the beauty and wonder of nature. Moreover my hope is that my photographs will inspire viewers to be proactive toward the protection of wildlife and its habitat, those efforts ultimately making a far better world for all beings.

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  • Fremme
    Fremmealmost 6 years ago

    Thanks for the info, for one, for 2 these are simply stunning images and you have inspired me to go for sure, always concerned about snow levels in the spring when i take my holidays but hey, i have to go after seeing all this

  • Fremme, it’s always a gamble when traveling anywhere with regard to weather but hopefully when you go to Yellowstone you will encounter mild temps and clear skies. Book plenty of days to ensure more likelihood of good weather. Can’t wait to see your vision of the park when you journey there.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • blamo
    blamoalmost 6 years ago

    Outstanding set of images

  • Thank you, Blamo. Much appreciated!

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • Stephen Beattie
    Stephen Beattiealmost 6 years ago

    This is terrific! This is a great explanation of the awesome variety of colors that surround the hot springs at Yellowstone.

  • Stephen, I could have gone on and one with the scientific lecture. Thermophilic organisms are amazing as well as being so incredibly beautiful. I know you appreciate these lovely minute organisms that bring us so much enjoyment with their colorful displays.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • A.M. Ruttle
    A.M. Ruttlealmost 6 years ago

    I’ve been doing the “wow” tour of YS and missing the “workhorse” and “cool scientific” side… I’ll pay attention the next time I see anything on these amazing thermophiles!!!!! Thanks for the eye opener and eye-popping images!

  • It’s ever so fascinating to me to see this beauty while comprehending what makes it possible. This always leaves me feeling rather small and insignificant in the face of volcanic prowess. Glad you enjoyed these images and their brief explanation.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • bev langby
    bev langbyalmost 6 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing , i went there in 1980 but never saw this………..

  • It’s funny, Bev that today I was looking at another artist’s images of Yellowstone. Same thing with me…there were many images he captured that I never saw. Guess we’ll both have to return to the park for another look around at what we missed.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • dinghysailor1
    dinghysailor1almost 6 years ago

    oohing and aaahing here like mad!! what a totally wonderful place to be let loose with a camera and you have some superb images!! amazing!!

  • You’re too funny, dinghysailor1. I worried I’d run out of the myriad of memory chips I brought along with me since I was snapping so many image, particularly of the geothermal abstracts. Glad you enjoyed this brief article.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • JanT
    JanTalmost 6 years ago

    I still have yet to see these phenomena, unless I saw them on a camping trip when a lot tinier and younger. The only family member remaining is my sib, and her memory is as poor as mine. But obviously my spouse and I should go now, with cameras and multi-TB cards, and imprint these colors and remarkable scenes once again or for the first time.

    Thanks for the accompanying – and footnoted! – explanations. I’ll start treating bacteria with new respect.

  • Hey, Jan. It’s funny that you mentioned being in Yellowstone as a youngster but not recalling the thermophylic bacterial mats and their unusual abstract patterns. Same here. I have been to YNP many times in different seasons but this time made the biggest impression upon me. I think it is because my husband and I were looking at things with a photographic bent this time, noticing things we did not on other trips. Additionally, my husband recently completed a university course (non-credit from The Teaching Company) on geology so he in particular was very aware of what was driving the geothermal activity in Yellowstone. It made us think differently about that landscape when we considered the fact that we were ensconced on top of one of the most powerful volcanos in the world. I hope you do return to the park. Thanks for stopping by to have a look, Jan.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • JanT
    JanTalmost 6 years ago

    I think the cameras and the recent course in geology would affect how one perceives this. And good for your husband! I’d enjoy re-taking at least my undergraduate geology course, among many other courses. Say, actually I do have that option, and the time and the means to do so. Thanks for the ideas!

  • Jan, the course my husband took was what we wished we had been taught way back when. It made geology vastly interesting. Say, I’m happy you got through the earthquake with no trouble, too.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • JanT
    JanTalmost 6 years ago

    I did think of us sitting on seismically active land when you mentioned the power of the volcano. I can’t imagine what that 8.4 magnitude (9.2 jolt) felt like in ’64, can you? (Or the tsunami.) Most quakes just readjust my thinking. Thanks for thinking of our little sharp quake, and all the smaller ones that followed. Good to let those plates readjust, too, perhaps.

  • Know what you mean, Jan. Alaska is vibrantly geologic with that subduction zone sitting off the Aleutian Islands (I’ve been paying attention to my husband’s encyclopedic knowledge of geology). With Redoubt burping lately, it is a potent reminder of the power of Nature that I tend to take for granted. No, I cannot imagine what a massive quake would be like but the stories I’ve heard and photos I’ve seen make me shiver. Tsunamis also put the fear of God in me.

    Once I stood on the edge of a very active volcano in Vanuatu. Slippery cinders were underfoot, offering little support. All I could think of was the cinders giving way beneath my feet only to have me tumble all the way into the gaping maw of the volcano. Naturally there was no railing for safety. My notes at the time recorded the sound emitting from that entry to Hell as being the noise made by 10 747s taking off at the same time. It was hellish, reinforcing to me that we are indeed very small creatures in the face of natural forces. I was happy to leave that place although the memory of that moment remains potent.

    Stay safe and get that putty art museums use to keep their art in place. Your dishes could benefit from a heavy application of the stuff!

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • akaurora
    akauroraalmost 6 years ago

    Another fabulous read, and the accompanying photos are awesome, the detail and colors superb!! It’s been years since my husband and I visited Yellowstone, and I hate to admit….I have no memory of any of this!! Either I need to start picking my brain cells apart, or it’s time to consider visiting YNP once again. We go through life with a glance here and there…never registering natures true beauty….then come the digital cameras and it’s like they have a life of their own….now we see things a little differently, things that we might not have seen before (like YNP before digital cameras). Thanks for bringing these beauties to light and for the wonderful information. Take Care ~ Deb ~ :) P.S. adding this to fave’s too, now Rick will have two great reads to sit, relax and recuperate too.

  • Best of luck to Rick with his upcoming surgery and here’s to a speedy recovery. I have to agree with you that I never paid all that much attention to the little things till I began looking at them through a camera lens. Sometimes the big picture is interesting but the little one can boggle the mind. Thanks for your kind comments, Deb!

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

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