If we want to be precise, the animal that can withstand the highest temperatures is that tiny, near-indestructible creature called the tardigrade, which I covered a few weeks ago here. It can survive at temperatures as high as 150°C, which makes it the ultimate winner. But that’s hardly fair – it’s already got several ‘extreme’ records to its name and besides, it can only survive such a heat for a few minutes before even the tardigrade meets its demise.
So maybe we should be looking instead for an animal that can consistently survive extremely high temperatures for long periods of time? If that’s the case, the Pompeii worm trumps all others. It lives at the very bottom of the ocean, around the hydrothermal vents that spew superheated water and chemicals from the core of the planet (we spoke about them here if you missed it). Not only is this animal subjected to massive pressure that would easily crush a person, and constantly doused in toxic sulphur and heavy metals, but it has also been found thriving at temperatures of up to 80°C, which would quickly kill almost every other organism. As you might have guessed, it is named after the Roman city of Pompeii, which famously suffered the brute force of Mount Vesuvius’ volcanic eruption in AD 79.
So how can the worms tolerate such extreme temperatures? It’s simple: they wear a fleece made out of bacteria along their backs. This may sound pretty disgusting and unhygienic, but this layer of bacteria, up to a centimetre thick, produces special proteins called ‘eurythermal enzymes’. These provide the bacteria – and, by extension, the Pompeii worm – protection from a wider range of temperatures. The worms feed the bacteria with secretions of mucus to keep them happy and well-fed.
As you might expect, scientists are eager to unravel the Pompeii worm’s survival secrets so they can be applied to human technology. Hopefully this doesn’t involve wearing a slimy coat of bacteria whenever it gets a little hot.