Israeli scientists have discovered an ancient ecosystem containing eight previously unknown species in a lake inside a cave, where they were completely sheltered from the outside world for millions of years.
The newly discovered crustaceans and invertebrates were found last month in a cave near the city of Ramle in central Israel, team leader Amos Frumkin announced Thursday.
“This is a very unique ecosystem that is completely isolated from the surface,” said Frumkin, a cave researcher in the geography department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The cave, located 328 feet (100 meters) below ground in a limestone quarry, includes tunnels that extend about a mile and a half (2.5 kilometers). Inside, a large underground lake holds the previously unknown species, some similar to scorpions and shrimp.
‘Underscores how little we know’
Allen G. Collins, a research fellow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said the find “underscores how little we know about life on our planet and how important it is to keep looking.”
“I imagine this is a unique situation, to have a cave system with both marine and freshwater systems, and it is quite interesting in an underground situation,” he said. “The scorpionlike creatures as well as the shrimplike creatures that were found are unique.”
The animals had been completely sheltered from the outside world by a thick layer of chalk that was impenetrable to water or exterior nutrients, Frumkin said.
Aside from one scorpionlike creature, all other species discovered were found alive. None were more than 2 inches (5 centimeters) long.
Frumkin said similar caves have been discovered in Romania and Mexico, but none has been as isolated. Unlike most animals, which depend on the photosynthesis food chain, the newly discovered species live off a completely independent and self-sustaining ecosystem.
Small hole just kept growing
Israel Naaman, Frumkin’s research assistant, made the initial discovery. He had been conducting a survey of caves when he came across a small hole that just kept growing.
“I thought it was just a small hole and I couldn’t believe what I had found; surprise after surprise,” he said.
When one of the volunteer staff crouched down to measure the temperature of the warm, sulfuric water, he suddenly jumped up and yelled “there is something moving here.”
Naaman acknowledged the species were likely endangered from oxygen exposure during the discovery process but said he was confident in the scientific importance of the find. He said he believes further exploration will reveal additional new life forms.
The Israeli researchers have shared their findings with international experts for further review and classification and hope to publish their conclusions soon.
The limestone cave is believed to be the second-largest in Israel. In order to explore it, researchers had to climb ropes and crawl through most of it. Due to its scientific significance and the fact that it is located inside an active quarry, the cave is now closed to visitors.