Mars and Turkey: Separated by space, united by geology

If you’re curious about the existence of life on Mars, you only have to look as far as Turkey to find answers. Well, almost.

Lake Salda in 2020 (left) and Jezero Crater in 2017 (right). Courtesy: NASA

Lake Salda, a stunning turquoise basin in Turkey’s Burdur province is believed to have similar mineralogy and geology to that of a Mars crater. Now, this is the same crater where NASA’s Perseverance rover landed successfully on Feb 18, 2021, in pursuit of evidence of organic life. The 45-km-wide crater goes by the name Jazero and is located in Mars’ northern hemisphere.

Owing to Salda’s striking similarities with Jazero’s terrain, Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist from US-based Purdue University, and research teams from Istanbul Technical University visited the lake in 2019 to study its geology as well as the surrounding area.

Northeastern shore of Lake Salda. Courtesy: Bradley Garczynski

What we know so far is that Salda’s shimmering white shoreline is made up of hydromagnesite – a mineral similar to the watershed minerals and carbonate detected at the crater’s western borders by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Further, the shoreline’s hydromagnesite sediments have found to be eroded from ‘microbialites’ – aka rocks formed with the support of microbes. And the evidence of these rocks on the crater could point to signs that microbes – and hence life – were once present on Mars!

The Jazero crater also houses a delta, which implies that it might have contained a lake in the past. So, now, scientists want to see if they can learn more about the depositional processes at Jezero by studying the stone settlement patterns in Lake Salda’s alluvial fans.

Groundwater spring on the southwest peninsula of Lake Salda. Courtesy: Bradley Garczynski

Moreover, the mud deposits at the northwestern shoreline of Salda suggest the presence of a nearby groundwater seep. The role groundwater might have played at Jezero is ambiguous, but studying comparable environments like Salda’s will give researchers a better idea of how to look for potential biosignatures at the crater. Apart from studying the lake’s geological anatomy, microbiologists are also observing a range of species inhabiting Lakes Salda, Yarisilu, and Acigol.

“The structures themselves are good indicators that microbial activity was involved,” says Horgan. “The best case scenario is to find something like the microbialites we see in Lake Salda also preserved in the rock in Jezero Crater.”

Though a lot of work at Lake Salda is already helping scientists to determine which deposits are most promising to go visit on Mars, it will be a while before the exploration community would be able to scour any samples from the Red Planet for details about its climate, geology, or even signs of life.

Perseverance is expected spend the next few years on Mars collecting dozens of rock and soil samples. And the mission to retrieve these samples will require at least two more rocket launches from Earth, currently slated for 2026 and 2031. We’ll keep you updated!

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First ever global map of bee species blooms conservation hopes

After analyzing almost 6 million public bee occurrence records, researchers are now ready to tell us where all the bees are! For the first time ever, a global map of bee diversity has been created to help in the conservation of these invertebrates as ecologically and economically invaluable universal pollinators.

We already know there are more than 20,000 bee species spread across the world. And as is the case with most plants and animals, it has always been expected that bees also follow a pattern called latitudinal gradient – wherein species tend to concentrate more toward the tropics and less toward the poles.

Turns out, bees are not a fan of general conventions. “The United States has by far the most species of bees, but there are also vast areas of the African continent and the Middle East which have high levels of undiscovered diversity, more than in tropical areas,” says John Ascher, senior author of the bee study published in Current Biology. Take a look at the map below:

Courtesy: Current Biology

The reason why there are far fewer bee species in forests and jungles than in arid desert environments is because trees tend to provide fewer sources of food for bees than low-lying plants and flowers. On the other hand, rains in the desert often lead to unpredictable mass blooms that literally carpet the entire area, providing bees with abundant food and nesting choices.

Building and sharing the knowledge of insect distribution is one of the biggest, most important challenges that biologists and conservationists face today. And Ascher, who is an assistant professor of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore, believes that the abundance of bee species cannot be interpreted in a large-scale analysis of distribution and potential declines of bee populations “until we understand species richness and geographic patterns.”

This is what makes this study particularly important.

“Many crops, especially in developing countries, rely on native bee species, not honey bees,” explains Alice Hughes, an associate professor of conservation biology and one of the authors of the study. “There isn’t nearly enough data out there about them, and providing a sensible baseline and analyzing it in a sensible way is essential if we’re going to maintain both biodiversity and also the services these species provide in the future.”

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