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The surprising life and avoidable demise of Earth’s remarkable oases

The antiquity, stability and weird chemistry of oases have made them cradles of evolution, yet humanity's need for water is putting these unique habitats in peril

By Rod Fensham

6 November 2023

Umm al-Ma Lake - Idyllic oasis in the Awbari Sand Sea, Sahara Desert, Libya; Shutterstock ID 72697231; purchase_order: -; job: -; client: -; other: -

An oasis in Libya, where groundwater is a scarce commodity

shutterstock/Patrick Poendl

IMAGINE you are in a desert. The air is dry, the landscape barren, but before you lies a teardrop-shaped pool. It is strangely lush, with sedges and tussocks of grass. Spiky succulents surround its salty shore. Peering into its crystal-clear waters, you observe various snails and furry brown domes that resemble frightened sea anemones. A shrimp-like creature paddles by. There’s a sort of leech, but it is lurid green. A small fish with red eyes and blue fins swims into view. Another fish, a flat-bellied bottom dweller, darts out of some weeds, flicking a cloud of mud. All these creatures are new to science.

It may sound like a nature lover’s fantasy, but this is real. It is an oasis in Australia’s arid interior, a place I have been lucky enough to visit and study. What’s more, it isn’t so unusual. Emerging evidence reveals that oases are often crucibles of biodiversity. These little pools in vast deserts are the ultimate isolated habitat, yet their antiquity, stability and weird chemistry have made them home to extraordinary organisms found nowhere else on Earth.

Oases still have secrets to impart. The exact locations of many of them remain unmapped. Meanwhile, others are threatened by demands for groundwater, a growing peril due to climate change and increasing human populations. That’s why I decided to establish the Fellowship of the Spring to save the world’s oases. This may sound ambitious, but recent developments in oasis rehabilitation show it can be done. Besides, the special cultural significance of oases and their crucial…

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