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No water? No problem for an evergreen shrub found in arid coastal regions of the Middle East, which packs a unique and sophisticated mechanism to obtain water in extremely harsh environments, Science News reported.
In a new study, a research team explained that the Athel tamarisk (Tamarix aphylla) can tolerate and even thrive in saline soils.
The plant can secrete excess salt through specialized glands in its leaves. As this salt is excreted, it forms conspicuous white crystals on the plant’s surface, which can be seen glistening in the intense daytime heat.
But researchers discovered that the tamarisk’s real innovation lies in its use of these salt crystals to collect water from the surrounding atmosphere, even in low-humidity desert conditions.
Time-lapse videos of the plants in their natural habitat showed that the salt crystals that formed during the day absorbed water at night. Laboratory experiments confirmed that these naturally encrusted branches collected a significant amount of water on their leaves, while washed branches yielded far less.
Meanwhile, the study found that the salts themselves, not the plant’s surface, were responsible for this phenomenon. The team identified a diverse mix of salts, including sodium chloride and lithium sulfate, with the latter playing a vital role due to its exceptional water-absorbing properties at lower humidity levels.
The authors said the findings have implications for tackling water scarcity and offer potential insights into innovative solutions for water harvesting in arid regions.
They also suggested that other undiscovered water-harvesting adaptations may exist in desert plants, hinting at a wealth of scientific exploration and innovation in the future.