For decades now scientists from around the world have been discovering hundreds of previously unknown species of cave-dwelling creatures. Even so, an estimated 90% of subterranean life has not yet been described. Cave animals are still quite mysterious to the world of science and often have bizarre adaptations and unique traits. Aside from their strange appearances, cave animals also live much longer than their surface counterparts—up to 10 times longer.
Some of the most interesting discoveries come from caves with no access to the outside world, which has allowed its inhabitants to evolve over millions of years undisturbed. Humans have walked straight over these pockets of weird life, without suspecting what lived in the darkness beneath them. Some cave species, which are completely unique to the rest of the world, have a habitat range of only a few square meters!
"Not only are these animals new to science, but they're adapted to very specific environments — some of them, to a single room in one cave," said Joel Despain, a cave specialist who helped explore 30 of the 238 known caves in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where around 30 new animal species have already been found.
The discoveries included translucent insects with their internal organs clearly visible, a scorpion-like invertebrate, a type of daddy long legs with jaws bigger than its body, and a fluorescent orange spider, among other odd critters.
"Many people will be looking at these trying to find where they fit in the tree of life," said cave biologist Darrell Ubick.
It is relatively rare to find new mammal or bird species on the surface, but caves still hold countless secrets. Many caves are difficult to reach and seldom explored. It is also highly likely that many more underground caves have yet to be discovered, and perhaps some never will be.
A team of construction workers in Romania were drilling 18m (60ft) below Earth's surface when they noticed a large opening in the rock. Christian Lascu, a geologist on the site, went down to investigate. Lascu was shocked at what he found. The construction crew had accidentally bored a hole into a mysterious cave, with no natural opening to Earth's surface. Previously no one knew it was there—or what lived inside.
Of the dozens of species discovered, over 30 were completely new to man.
Biologist Thomas Kane noted the long time the cave animals have had to evolve into unique species saying, "This cave had been completely sealed for more than 5.5 million years."
Cave creatures are usually mostly blind or evolved with no eyes at all. With no outside food source, the Romanian critters had been feasting on each other, with the base food being a grayish-white mat that turned out to be a type of fungi that grew over the walls like “wet Kleenex”.
"When we looked at them [the grayish-white mats] under a microscope, we discovered that they are made up of fungi," he says. "Then we found a peculiar type of bacteria growing in the fungi." According to Kane, these bacteria use water, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide (in the cave's water) to produce food for other cave creatures, similar to how surface plants use carbon dioxide, water, and the Sun's energy to produce food for surface animals.
Recently another subterrean cave was unearthed at a quarry in Israel. The invertebrate animals found in the cave mystified scientists. These species are millions of years old and represent strange variations of both seawater and freshwater crustaceans, along with several variations of land animal species, which may give scientists insights into the process of evolution.
Insights into the weird world of cave creatures has also given hope to those wanting to find subsurface signs of life on during the upcoming probe. Whether or not we find life on Mars, we now know it’s possible for life to exist on sparse, strange diets, with no sunlight and in less than ideal environmental “pockets”.
"You get the feeling you're Lewis and Clark, charting undiscovered territory," said Jean Krejca, a biologist who helped discover the California cave species. "Caves are one of the last frontiers."
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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