Kathy Loetzerich, environmental resource specialist for Edwards Air Force Base contractor JT3/CH2M Hill, looks for shrimp off of Lancaster Boulevard on base. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) The desert doesn't exactly conjure up images of butter and cocktail sauce, but there's more shrimp in a number of areas on base than in a grocery store.
It's not a seafood restaurant - unless you're one of a variety of migratory birds seeking a bite to eat before continuing your journey south in the winter or north in the spring. However, the tiny shrimp rise again and again as sure as poppies grow in the spring.
Because the area once was a gigantic lake, the shrimp eggs lie dormant under a crust of blue-green algae and sand or clay that compacts into a hard crust. A hardened outer layer called a cyst protects the delicate insides from extreme temperatures. It is this shell that allows the eggs to lie dormant, said Misty Hailstone, a biologist for Edwards Air Force Base contractor JT3/CH2M HILL.
The shrimp eggs are hardy and have been proven to withstand more than 25 years of dormancy, Hailstone said. Even when there is drought and extreme heat the shrimp rise again and it is believed the shrimp eggs could survive as long as 50 years. Usually, it's not that long of a wait.
When the rains come and pool in many areas of the base - from roadside ponds on Lancaster Boulevard to the dry lakebeds - the shrimp come alive. So far, seven varieties of shrimp have been found at Edwards, said Mark Bratton, another JT3/CH2M HILL biologist. The shrimp have such a short time to hatch and produce young that they often produce several generations in a single season. Where each variety of shrimp can be found around base can vary.
Here is an example of a tadpole shrimp. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) Of the seven species of freshwater shrimp three are predominant, including giant fairy, tadpole and clam varieties. The giant fairy shrimp look like snails without their shells and lots of legs, the tadpole shrimp resemble small horseshoe crabs with a shield-like plate on their backs and a pointed tail called a telson, and the clam variety look like a small clam. The shrimp range in size; the biggest can grow to be as much as four inches long and the smallest being about the size of a fingernail.
While most people probably would not heat butter or mix up some cocktail sauce for these shrimp, they were a food source for early Native Americans that settled nearby. The shrimp were captured in clay and rolled into a ball. The ball would dry, be cooked over a fire and once cooked, the Native Americans would break the ball open and eat the shrimp, said Kathy Loetzerich, a JT3/CH2M HILL environmental resource specialist.
The lifespan for the shrimp is short. Once born, they feed on various organic materials, grow, produce eggs, and die, Bratton said. The life cycle is about two weeks long, during which they can lay thousands of eggs. Once the crust of algae and dirt hardens as the water dries up, the eggs remain dormant until the next wet season.
This is a giant fairy shrimp. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) An easily accessible area for seeing the shrimp is at Branch Memorial Park, west of Lancaster Boulevard near the southern boundary of the base. After a good rain, a strainer, boots and a temporary container are all people need to observe the shrimp. Bratton asks that people who observe the shrimp immediately return them to their environment when the observation is complete.
Bratton also stresses the sensitivity of the habitat and urges that observers disturb the clay pans as little as possible. Driving on them is particularly destructive, as can be seen in the severity of the damaged ecosystem at El Mirage Dry Lake in Southern California due to off-road vehicle activity.