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Smelly Cheese Helps Discover A New Genus Of Cave Animal

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockSep 21 2017, 16:55 UTC

Thanks again, cheese. aaabbbccc/Shutterstock

As if cheese hasn’t done enough for the world, it’s now working on the frontline of science to discover a “striking” new species and genus of animal.

The discovery was made in the Kaptarhana cave, a remote cavern located at the foot of the Koytendag Mountain in Eastern Turkmenistan, by an international team of speleobiologists (the fancy term for scientists who study creatures that inhabit caves). You might not have heard of this mountain range, but remarkably it holds one of the largest cave systems in Asia, which stretches for over 57 kilometers (35 miles) underground.

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Inside this bat-filled cavern, the team discovered a new genus of crawling bristletail insect (image below). They named the little beast Turkmenocampa mirabilis, in a homage to its homeland of Turkmenistan and the Latin word "mirabilis", which means “unusual, amazing, wonderful, remarkable.”

"What we have here is not only a new remarkable organism, but also an amazing and unusual cave critter that has undergone a long evolutionary journey to adapt to the underground environment of Central Asia," said lead author Alberto Sendra, from the University of Alcalá in Spain, in a statement.

A two-pronged bristletail of the family Campodeidae. Alberto Sendra

The key ingredient to their discovery was smelly cheese. The researchers left baited traps containing some stinky cheese and ethylene glycol, an odorless sweet-tasting syrup.

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Although the researchers spent over eight hours lurking around the cave, they didn’t visually observe anything of note. However, after leaving the cheesy-traps for a few months in Spring, they returned to find a fair few specimens of the undescribed animal.

This odd little insect is another great example of how life evolves to live in the cave environment, such as its special adaptions to help walk on both wet surfaces and dry cave walls. It also highlights the importance of the understudied area of Kaptarhana, as it’s likely many other unknown species live there.

"While many speleobiologists consider the terrestrial cave fauna in Central Asia as poor, it is places such as Kaptarhana that can turn the tables by giving us new insights about the biodiversity richness, evolutionary history, formation and functioning of the underground ecosystems of this part of the world," said professor Pavel Stoev of the National Museum of Natural History in Bulgaria.


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