(Guest post by Jude Ware)
Like many in the general public, I had never heard of Stygofauna until recently. But I have a new respect for these minute, blind little animals who inhabit the underground water aquifers now that I realize they are taking on some of the biggest creatures in Australia, the mining companies.
Stygofauna are generally crustaceans, shrimp-like species, but can include any animal that is restricted to living underground in the groundwater aquifers that lie far beneath Australians arid surface. Researchers have even found larger species such as fish and eels living in this way.
They are up against the miners because this is an industry that requires a vast amount of water for processing minerals, and can literally suck an aquifer dry or return water contaminated by mine processes that is toxic to them. So who is on the side of this largely unlovable and inconspicuous group of species? Well, research has been growing into stygofauna and troglofauna (species that inhabit the closed but air filled cave systems underground). The Environmental Protection Agency now requires biodiversity surveys for these animals in the planning stages of projects that impact the groundwater– but despite the lack of real knowledge about their significance in the ecosystem, to date there has been no mining project ever derailed by their presence.
So why should we weigh in on the side of the underdog? Well, their simple existence is one of the most truly amazing stories of evolution on earth. There is no light or other ready energy source, yet in each dark water pocket, life has evolved over millions of years and continued to cling to an existence in this most inhospitable of locations. Furthermore, we are so far away from understanding their contribution to generating our clean groundwater upon which the surface vegetation depends, and we should not decimate their populations in ignorance.
And if that doesn’t grab you consider this: stygofaunal communities are one of the only examples on earth where life can exist in a closed system without sunlight. The applications to future living underground or in space for humans are truly vast.
So go on… stand up for stygofauna , they need a friends in light places.
Stygofauna reported in Cosmos Mazazine:
Bradford T, Adams M, Humphreys WF, Austin AD, Cooper SJB (2009) DNA barcoding of stygofauna uncovers cryptic amphipod diversity in a calcrete aquifer in Western Australia’s arid zone. Molecular Ecology Resources 10: 41–50.
[Featured image: New woodlice species whose distribution is restricted to mound springs in South Australia (A. Austin)]