Israeli researchers discover eight new species in ancient ecosystem

Left to right: Israel Naaman, Prof. Amos Frumkin and Dr. Hanan Dimentman examine one of the crustaceans found in the cave near Ramle.Scientists at Israel’s Hebrew University have discovered an ancient ecosystem containing eight previously unknown species in a lake …

Left to right: Israel Naaman, Prof. Amos Frumkin and Dr. Hanan Dimentman examine one of the crustaceans found in the cave near Ramle.Scientists at Israel’s Hebrew University 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.

In a press conference on the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University, the researchers said the discovery of the “new and unique underground ecosystem” came about when a small opening was found, leading to a cave extending to a depth of 100 meters beneath the surface of a quarry in the vicinity of Ramle, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The quarry is operated by cement manufacturer Nesher Industries.

The cave, which has been dubbed the Ayalon Cave, is “unique in the world,” said Prof. Amos Frumkin of the Hebrew University Department of Geography. This is due mainly to its isolation from the outside world, since the cave’s surface is situated under a layer of chalk that is impenetrable to water. The cave, with its branches, extends over some 2½ kilometers, making it Israel’s second largest limestone cave. It is to remain closed to the public to permit further scientific research.

The invertebrate animals found in the cave – four seawater and freshwater crustaceans and four terrestial species – are related to but different from other, similar life forms known to scientists. The species have been sent to biological experts in both Israel and abroad for further analysis and dating. It is estimated that these species are millions of years old. Also found in the cave were bacteria that serve as the basic food source in the ecosystem.

Allen G. Collins, a research fellow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, told the Associated Press that 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 scorpion-like creatures as well as the shrimp-like creatures that were found are unique.”

“The eight species found thus far are only the beginning” of what promises to be “a fantastic biodiversity,” said Dr. Hanan Dimentman of the Hebrew University Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, another of the researchers involved in the project. He said that he expects further exploration to reveal several other unique life forms.

The animals found there were all discovered live, except for a blind species of scorpion. Dimentman is certain, however, that live scorpions will be discovered in further explorations and also probably an animal or animals which feed on the scorpions.

The underground cave includes an underground lake, in which the crustaceans were found. The lake is part of the Yarkon-Taninim aquifer, one of Israel’s two aquifers, yet is different in temperature and chemical composition from the main waters of the aquifer. The lake’s temperature and salinity indicates that its source is deep underground.

Among the interesting features of the discoveries thus far in the cave is that two of the crustaceans are seawater species and two others are of a types found in fresh or brackish water. This can provide insights into events occurring millions of years ago regarding the history of ancient bodies of water in the region.

According to The Boston Globe, Matan Avital, 18, from Beit Horon, a settlement near Jerusalem, stumbled across the animals earlier this month as a member of a small team of volunteer spelunkers exploring a newly discovered network of natural underground tunnels exposed near a cement quarry alongside the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.

“I went down to check out an underground lake we found in this huge cavern when I noticed there were tiny animals swimming around in the water,” Avital told the Globe. Avital said he called to Israel Naaman, a master’s student of Frumkin’s in geography at Hebrew University who was directing the cave exploration. Naaman caught the swimming creature in a plastic container.

“It was very difficult to catch it because it was swimming so fast,” Avital said. “It took us five or six minutes to catch this little thing… We had no idea what it was. Israel took it to the experts. The more they examined it they realized it was something out of the ordinary, a new discovery,” Avital said.

Avital, who said he has “always loved exploring” since he was a small boy, is volunteering at the cave research unit in the Geography Department of Hebrew University during a year off between high school and service in the Israeli Army. He said some of the underground tunnels were barely large enough to crawl through, while others had perilous drops which could only be negotiated using climbing gear

Naaman said he was confident in the scientific importance of the find, and 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.

Joel Despain, a cave management specialist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, who helped discover 27 new species in a network of California caves earlier this year, called the discovery “a big deal.”

“It’s definitely quite significant,” he told The Globe. “It could have important ramifications for taxonomy, the science of classifying animals and plants. Biologists are constantly revising the family trees. Finding something very new and unique will have an impact on how things are classified in that branch of the tree.”