I’ve dived in hundreds of underwater caves hunting for new forms of life

I’ve dived in hundreds of underwater caves hunting for new forms of life


Perhaps while you image a college professor doing analysis it includes check tubes and beakers, or maybe poring over musty manuscripts in a dimly lit library, or perhaps going out into the sector to look at new crop-growing strategies or animal-breeding strategies. All of it’s good, stable analysis and I commend all of them.

Then there may be what I do – cave diving. To check the biology and ecology of coastal, saltwater caves and the marine fauna that inhabit them, my cave diving companions and I head underground and underwater to discover these distinctive and difficult ecosystems. Usually we go to locations no different human has been. Whereas the peaks of the tallest mountains will be seen from an airplane or the depths of the ocean mapped with sonar, caves can solely be explored firsthand.

Across the globe, from Australia to the Mediterranean, from Hawaii to the Bahamas and all through the Caribbean, I’ve explored greater than 1,500 such underwater caves during the last 40 years. The expertise will be breathtaking. If you find yourself down 60 to 100 toes in a cave that has zero mild and is 20 miles lengthy, you by no means know what you’re about to see as you flip the following nook.

My main focus is looking for new types of life – largely white, eyeless crustaceans – which are particularly tailored to this completely darkish, food-poor surroundings. Cave diving is a necessary instrument in our investigations for the reason that caves I’m are crammed with water: sometimes a layer of recent or brackish water on the floor after which saltwater at depths of 10 to 20 meters or extra.

There’s no different solution to entry these unexplored areas than to strap in your scuba tanks and leap in.

Scientific analysis as excessive sport

The checklist of what can go fallacious in a cave dive may fill your occasion planner.

Gear or mild failure, leaking scuba tanks, damaged information strains, getting misplaced, cave collapse, stirred up silt leading to zero visibility, toxic fuel mixtures – you get the concept.

It’s fieldwork that may be a matter of life or dying. I’ve had some shut calls through the years, and sadly, have misplaced a number of good buddies and researchers in cave accidents.

To place it mildly, underwater caves will be very hostile and unforgiving. One such cave – the Satan’s system in north-central Florida – has claimed at least 14 lives in the last 30 years, and there are different examples elsewhere in Florida and in Mexico.

More often than not, human error is accountable, when divers don’t observe the foundations they need to or lack important coaching and expertise in cave diving.

My household has gotten used to the concept what I do shouldn’t be at all times a stroll within the park. They know that since I’m 69, I stress security, being bodily and mentally ready, and that I religiously abide by the cardinal rule of cave diving – that you simply by no means ever dive alone. My colleagues and I often go right into a cave with groups of two to 3 divers and always take care of one another to see if there may be something going fallacious throughout our dives, which often final about 90 minutes, however will be so long as three hours or extra.

Demise-defying dives repay in discoveries

It’s not simply new species we’re discovering, but also higher groups of animals together with a brand new class, orders, families and genera, beforehand unknown from some other habitat on the planet. A few of our newfound animals have close relatives living in similar caves on opposite margins of the Atlantic Ocean and even the far facet of the Earth (such because the Bahamas versus Western Australia).

Whereas most of those caves are fashioned in limestone, they will additionally embody seawater-flooded lava tubes created by volcanic eruptions. Amazingly, similar types of animals inhabit both.

Within the deserts of West Texas, our crew found and explored the deepest underwater cave in the U.S., reaching a depth of 462 toes.

The graduate college students in my lab work on a various group of questions. They’re uncovering the character of chemosynthetic processes in caves – how microorganisms use power from chemical bonds, moderately than mild power as in photosynthesis, to supply natural matter – and their significance to the cave meals net.

Different college students are analyzing data of Ice Age sea level history held in cave sediments, in addition to the presence of tree roots penetrating into underwater caves and their significance to the overlying tropical forest. We’re discovering proof that sister species of cave animals on reverse shores of the Atlantic separated from each other about 110 million years ago as tectonic plate movements initiated the opening of the Atlantic, in addition to figuring out how environmental and ecological elements have an effect on the abundance and diversity of animals in saltwater caves.

Our analysis has important implications, particularly regarding endangered species and environmental safety. Since many cave animals happen solely in a single cave and nowhere else on Earth, air pollution or destruction of caves can lead to species extinctions. Sadly, the creation of many protected areas and nature reserves failed to take cave species into account.

Some discoveries will be utterly unanticipated. For instance, once we sequenced DNA from a wide range of arthropods, together with crustaceans and bugs, the information strongly support a sister group relationship between hexapods (the bugs) and remipedes, a small and enigmatic group of marine crustaceans completely present in underwater caves. This locations the remipedes in a pivotal place to understanding the evolution of crustaceans and bugs.

Even at this stage of my life, to me the dangers attendant to my cave diving analysis are price it. It’s just like the Star Trek mantra come true – to boldly go the place no man has gone earlier than. The possibility to find new types of marine life, to view never-before-seen underwater formations, huge chambers, limitless tunnels and deep chasms, to swim in among the bluest and purest water on Earth – I’ll take that type of analysis and its challenges any day.

Sure, it may give new which means to the previous line about “publish or perish” in academia. However I adore it, and I’ll let you know with all honesty, I can’t wait till my subsequent journey.

Tom Iliffe is a Professor of Marine Biology on the Texas A&M College. This text was initially featured on The Conversation.

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