Caves are home to some of the weirdest creatures that roam the planet. Isolated from the rest of the world in dark, dank, and “otherworldly” conditions, evolution is left to “do its thing” and just run wild. The results of this unique setting, as this newly discovered creature shows, are often quite remarkable.
Scientists and local cavers have recently described a new species of primitive arthropod that was previously unknown to science.
Its name, Haplocampa wagnelli, pays homage to one of the study’s co-authors, Craig Wagnell, who has spent years exploring and documenting Vancouver Island caves.
As reported in the journal Subterranean Biology, the insect-like diplurans are just 3 to 6 millimeters in length, armed with five chemical-sniffing receptors, and devoid of most pigment. Of course, when you're living in a pitch-black cave, there isn’t much need for coloration or looking pretty.
Credit: Felix Ossig-Bonanno
Its home is a cave on Vancouver Island in Canada that was sealed by a thick wall some 26,000 years ago around the Last Glacial Maximum, the most intense part of the “Last Ice Age”, where colossal ice sheets covered much of North America, northern Europe, and Asia.
This could mean one of two things for the teeny cave-dweller. First, it could mean that this species diverged from its Asian relatives and migrated to Vancouver Island after the Ice Age heated up and the cave’s ice wall thawed. Alternatively, and more intriguingly, it could suggest that the species was sealed in the cave during the Ice Age.
There is more evidence to support the former, that these creatures migrated down the cave after the retreat of the glacial ice occurred. This is namely because of its resemblance to other species found across the world, such as the Metriocampa of Siberia or the Pacificampa of Japan's islands and the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps, the researchers argue, this species migrated across the Bering Land Bridge, a since thawed ice bridge between Eurasia and North America, 20,000 years or so ago and settled in the strange caves of Vancouver Island.
Alberto Mocholí, a lead author and ecologist at the University of Alcalá, told IFLScience that the alternative ice-age survivor hypothesis is "far-fetched" yet "enticing".
"The existence of a slightly troglomorphic species of diplura in a cave cover of ice not a long time ago could suggest this survival. But it was a too daring an idea to propose within the scientific journal but not in the media."
If this tickled your fancy, you should check out the story of a cave in present-day Romania that was sealed up for around 5.5 million years. Humans first laid eyes on the cave in 1986 and have since discovered the presence of a number of spiders, water scorpions, pseudoscorpions, centipedes, leeches, and isopods – 33 of which are totally unique to this one cave.