Meet the ‘King’ of an underground subsurface toxic ecosystem unlike anywhere else on earth

The Movile Cave in southeastern Romania would not be at the top of your vacation destination list: light does not get down on it, the air is thick with toxic gases, and it has been cut off from the world. existed for about 5.5 million years before it was accidentally discovered. in 1986.

Movile, however, has life, and scientists have yet to find the largest creature they have ever discovered. The troglobiont (or underground) centipede got its name Cryptops speleorex, and grows up to 52 mm (2 inches) in length.

This discovery brings the number of endemic species specific to the cave to 35, with many more likely to be found in this interesting underground network – even though researchers can only have about 5-6 hours to spend time in the caves each time.

hundred 2The ‘king of the cave’ inspects his land. (Mihai Baciu, GESS LAB, Mangalia)

“The centipede we described is a poisonous predator, the largest of the previously described animals from this cave,” the researchers said. “Thinking about the highest level in this subterranean system, we decided to name the species Cryptops speleorex, which can be translated as ‘king of the cave’.

Other creatures found so far in the depths of the Movile include water scorpions, leeches, and tiny spiders. They all depend on the nutrients provided by oxygen gases, including methane and sulfur by bacteria.

It is the only ecosystem in the world that is dependent on this type of chemosynthesis, but the cave is unusual in other ways as well. Having been in complete darkness for millions of years, many of the creatures down here are blind and completely colorless.

Some of the species inside Movile Cave can be found outside its borders as well, however C. speleorex none of which. The international team of scientists used DNA analysis to confirm that the centipede was in fact one that had never been seen before.

“Our results confirmed our doubts and revealed that Movile Centipede is geographically and genetically distinct, suggesting that it has evolved from the closest residential relationship to the surface over millions of years into a completely new taxon that is better suited to life in relentless darkness, ”say the researchers.

hundred 3Examining the cave. (Mihai Baciu, GESS LAB, Mangalia)

With about half the normal level of oxygen in the air and plenty of hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide, trips down into the Movile Cave must be short for researchers. It is also very damp in the cave.

Very few researchers ever visit the underground network – it involves the descent of a 20-meter (66-foot) rope, followed by enough climbing through tight spaces to reach the cave in the middle and swim on underwater channels to see nothing outside.

There is no doubt that the trip is worthwhile from a scientific point of view though. The organisms that call the cave home can teach us a lot about how to live life in the harshest conditions, how to grow alone, and even how it first started on Earth.

For now, C. speleorex is the king of the cave – but it may not be too long before a larger creature is seen in the dark.

After all, there is always a bigger centipede.

The research was published in ZooKeys.