More than 850 new species, from blind fish to diving beetles, have been discovered under the Australian outback.
A millipede of the genus Stygiochiropus
The largely blind creatures first went underground due to climate change tens of millions of years ago and have survived since in total darkness.
Scientists believe the finding represents only a fifth of the thousands of species that could be living in tiny caves and caverns beneath the desert.
Evolutionary biologist Professor Andy Austin, of Adelaide University, said the insects were survivors from a time 20 to 30 million years ago when rainforest covered much of Australia.
“Central and southern Australia was a much wetter place 15 million years ago when there was a flourishing diversity of invertebrate fauna living on the surface,” he said.
“But the continent became drier, a process that last until about one to two million years ago, resulting in our current arid environment.
“Species took refuge in isolated favourable habitats, such as in underground waters and micro-caverns, where they survived and evolved in isolation from each other.”
Prof Austin said spiders, small crustaceans, worms and woodlice were found in the four year survey. The results were announced at a conference in Darwin to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin
“Virtually all are blind and completely lack eyes, and lack pigment, so they are pale or white in colour,” he said.
“The insects in caves often have long legs and antennae — most sense vibration and use chemical senses, as they cannot see in the pitch black.”
The new species, which represent a whole new element of biodiversity in Australia, are now under threat from mining and ranching.
Prof Austin and his team have only examined 10 per cent of the areas that are likely to have underground species and will carry on searching as well as investigating the genetics of the creatures and how they reacted to climate change millions of years ago.
“What we’ve found is you don’t have to go searching in the depths of the ocean to discover new species of invertebrate animals — you just have to look in your own backyard,” he said.
Full article and photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/6246660/Subterranean-spiders-among-new-species-discovered-under-Australian-desert.html
Researchers Go Underground To Reveal 850 New Species In Australian Outback
Some of the 850 new species discovered in underground water, caves and micro-caverns across outback Australia.
Australian researchers have discovered a huge number of new species of invertebrate animals living in underground water, caves and “micro-caverns” amid the harsh conditions of the Australian outback.
A national team of 18 researchers has discovered 850 new species of invertebrates, which include various insects, small crustaceans, spiders, worms and many others.
The team – led by Professor Andy Austin (University of Adelaide), Dr Steve Cooper (South Australian Museum) and Dr Bill Humphreys (Western Australian Museum) – has conducted a comprehensive four-year survey of underground water, caves and micro-caverns across arid and semi-arid Australia.
“What we’ve found is that you don’t have to go searching in the depths of the ocean to discover new species of invertebrate animals – you just have to look in your own ‘back yard’,” says Professor Austin from the Australian Center for Evolutionary Biology & Biodiversity at the University of Adelaide.
“Our research has revealed whole communities of invertebrate animals that were previously unknown just a few years ago. What we have discovered is a completely new component to Australia’s biodiversity. It is a huge discovery and it is only about one fifth of the number of new species we believe exist underground in the Australian outback.”
Only half of the species discovered have so far been named. Generically, the animals found in underground water are known as “stygofauna” and those from caves and micro-caverns are known as “troglofauna”.
Professor Austin says the team has a theory as to why so many new species have been hidden away underground and in caves.
“Essentially what we are seeing is the result of past climate change. Central and southern Australia was a much wetter place 15 million years ago when there was a flourishing diversity of invertebrate fauna living on the surface. But the continent became drier, a process that last until about 1-2 million years ago, resulting in our current arid environment. Species took refuge in isolated favorable habitats, such as in underground waters and micro-caverns, where they survived and evolved in isolation from each other.
“Discovery of this ‘new’ biodiversity, although exciting scientifically, also poses a number of challenges for conservation in that many of these species are found in areas that are potentially impacted by mining and pastoral activities,” he says.
The research team has reported its findings at a scientific conference on evolution and biodiversity in Darwin, which celebrates the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin: http://www.evolutionbiodiversity2009.org.
The team’s research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Environmental Futures Network.
Full article and photo: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090928095214.htm