Prehistoric Cave Discovered; 8 New Species Thrive Inside

Mati Milstein in Ramle, Israel
for National Geographic News
June 2, 2006

Quarry workers digging recently in central Israel broke through bedrock and stumbled into an entirely new and unique ecosystem, scientists announced Wednesday. The cavern had been sealed off from the outside world for millions of years.

When researchers entered the cave through a small passage, they found eight ancient animal species that had never been seen before.

At 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometers) long, the newly named Ayalon Cave is Israel's second largest known limestone cave. The underground chamber stretches some 330 feet (100 meters) deep, near the town of Ramle, not far from the city of Tel Aviv (Israel map).

"The eight species found thus far are only the beginning" of what promises to be "a fantastic biodiversity," researcher Hanan Dimentman, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences said in a statement.

Four of the new species are water-dwelling crustaceans. Four others are land-based invertebrates—creatures without spines.

Also found in the cave were bacteria that serve as the basic food source in the self-contained community.

As might be expected of species confined to a pitch-black cavern for millions of years, none of the newly discovered animals had eyes.

All were alive, except for a scorpion-like creature—the only known representative of its species.

Unusually, two of the crustaceans found in the cave are saltwater species. The two others are of a type found in fresh or brackish (slightly salty) water.

Today's Mediterranean Sea is a remnant of the Neotethys ocean basin, which was formed during the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic periods, about 200 million years ago.

The current mix of freshwater and saltwater species in Ayalon Cave may be the result of events that occurred when what is now Israel was covered by that ancient sea.

Specimens were sent to biologists in Israel and overseas for further analysis and precision dating.

Continued on Next Page >>


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