World Wide Hypoliths Project

This project was supported by a Waitt Grant from the National Geographic Society.

Also, see this project featured on NASA’s web site.

National Public Radio’s Science Friday program has featured this project and developed a series of lessons and student activities based on it for use in high school classrooms:

Here is the on-air audio segment from the day we went live on NPR:

hiking in White Mountains, California
Hypolith habitat in White Mountains

Mountaintops, deserts and polar regions have a lot in common. They are extreme environments that appear hostile to life at first, but are full of hidden surprises,
They have beautiful, other-worldly landscapes, remote and empty.  They are fragile environments sensitive to climate change. And, they all have hypolithic cyanobacteria.

Hypolithic cyanobacteria under quart rocks in California's White Mountains (elevation 12,500')
Hypolithic cyanobacteria under quartz rock in California’s White Mountains (elevation 12,500′)


Astrobiology includes the study of life in extreme environments in order to understand how to find life on other planets, like Mars. Cyanobacteria are some of Earth’s oldest, simplest and toughest microorganisms. They live in lots of places, not just in extreme environments. However, wherever conditions get really tough you find them under rocks (“hypolithic” = “under rocks.”) Hypolithic cyanobacteria are best known from the Arctic (Devon and Cornwallis Islands) and the Antarctic Dry Valleys.  They prefer translucent rocks like quartz and marble. The rock acts like a little greenhouse window, transmitting some visible light but blocking a lot of the harsh ultraviolet light that can harm living cells. The rocks also trap moisture under them, and protect the cells underneath from extremes of heat and cold.

There’s a lot that isn’t known about hypoliths. Their growth is difficult to quantify, since it responds to the contours of each rock. However, if you place pre-cut rocks of standardized dimensions in extreme environments, you can rigorously control for variables like light transmission and time.

Starting in 2010, Sir Francis Drake High School has deployed arrays of artificial hypoliths in extreme locations around the world. Each of these arrays was personally placed in the field by a teacher or student from Drake High, except for the Antarctica one which was placed by PolarTREC teacher Justin Kendhammer and Northern Arizona University professor Egbert Scghwartz and the Australia one which was placed by geologist Jon  Clarke.  Each large array is approximately one square meter in area and includes sixty stones. We also have smaller arrays of 9 – 30 stones near some of the same locations. The “stones” are glass, marble and travertine tiles from building supply stores. They have standard dimensions. Variables include:

  • Light transmission (3 levels),
  • Hot deserts vs. cold ones.
  • Time.

Places we have put them: California’s White Mountains, Canada’s Devon and Cornwallis Islands, Svalbard, Namibia, Abu Dhabi, the Mojave Desert, Antarctica, Australia, the Atacama Desert, the Himalayas.  All seven continents!

Artificial hypolith 640

This project has management implications for areas containing hypoliths. When you scuff a quartz pebble with your hiking boots and turn it over, how long does it take for the new lower side to become colonized with a new layer of cells? If the answer is “centuries” then human activities in the area need to be restricted more than if the answer is “a few months.”

Namibia (Africa)
Namibia (Africa)

Namibia (Africa)
Gobabeb Centre/Namib-Naukluft National Park
Lat. 23º 32’ South, Long. 15º 08’ East
Deployed April 2010. Transect array deployed April 2012


White Mountains (California)
White Mountains (California)


White Mountains (California, USA)
Lat. 37º 35’ North, Long. 118º 14’ West
Deployed Oct. 2010 and July 2011. Transect array June 2012



Mojave Desert (California)
Mojave Desert (California)

Mojave Desert (California, USA)
Lat. 35º 09’ North, Long. 115º 48’ West
Deployed April 2011; second array April 2013


Devon Island
Devon Islands



Devon and Cornwallis Islands (Nunavut, Arctic Canada)
Haughton Mars Project
Lat. 75º 26’ North, Long. 89º 52’ West
Deployed July 2010; other arrays July 2012


Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates


Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates)
Near Jebel Hafeet
Lat. 24º 02’ North, Long. 55º 48’ East
Deployed February 2011




Taylor Dry Valley (Antarctica)
Taylor Dry Valley (Antarctica)

Antarctica (Taylor Dry Valley) Near lake Hoare
Lat. 77º 38’ South, Long. 162º 56’ East
Deployed November 2013





Lots of people and organizations have helped us:

This project resulted from NASA’s Spaceward Bound program, in particular the Mojave 2009, Namib 2010, United Arab Emirates 2011, Namib 2012 and India 2016 expeditions.  We are indebted to NASA scientists Dr. Chris McKay and Dr. Kimberley Warren-Rhodes, Dr. Henry Sun of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute, and Professor Donald Cowan of the University of Pretoria in South Africa for teaching us about hypoliths.  We are indebted to Dr. Pascal Lee and Ms. Kira Lorber of the Haughton Mars Project for hosting us at Devon Island and encouraging us to place an array there.  We are grateful to NASA, the Haughton Mars Project and the Drake Fund for logistical and financial support for this project, and to our Principal Mr. Don Drake for his support and confidence in us.  We are grateful to Professor Egbert Schwartz, Northern Arizona University, and PolarTREC Teacher Justin Kendhammer for placing our array in the perfect place in Antarctica, and to Australian geologist Jon Clarke for placing an array in Australia.   Twenty Five Company in Novato, California (Formerly Marin Tile Supply) provided the marble and travertine tiles for this project.

Author | Teacher | Scientist