New species thrive in Ramle underworld

Scientists have found eight new animal species in the darkness below Ramle.

Aquatic species 390 (photo credit: Courtesy Amos Frumkin)
Aquatic species 390
(photo credit: Courtesy Amos Frumkin)
In a cavernous underworld 100 meters beneath a soft limestone quarry in Ramle, scientists have found eight new animal species – seven of which are still thriving in the darkness below.
Researchers recently completed a comprehensive study on the species – whose habitat quarry workers discovered in 2006 – and have thus far given names to seven out of the eight animals inhabiting the area. Isolated for millions of years in a 40- meter-long hall in a 2.7-kilometer- long cave, the species have survived off of sulfur bacteria in their underground lake.
“The cave was concealed about 100 meters under the surface with no natural opening to the surface,” Prof.
Amos Frumkin, director of the Cave Research Unit at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Geography Department, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
The underground oasis was formed by rising water deep within the rock mass, Frumkin explained.
“This is why it was isolated from all the surface species,” he said. “They could not usually get in except this small number of species, which probably got in a long period ago.”
Very small holes, that are large enough for tiny animals but certainly not large enough for human beings, allowed the species to enter, according to Frumkin.
Researchers found most of the animals in the 40-meter hall, as it is “the only place where water is still found within the cave,” Frumkin said.
“The whole ecosystem depends on the water,” he explained.
Remains of the largest land animal among those discovered – Akrav israchanani, the sole animal to be found only dead – were also located in other parts of the cave. This is presumably because the rest of the cave had been “inundated with water in earlier periods, until the early 1950s,” Frumkin said. Due to people pumping groundwater from the aquifer below, however, the level of water in the cave fell.
All of the animals discovered are arthropods. Frumkin, Dr. Chanan Dimentman of the Hebrew University’s Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences and Israel Naaman, also of the university, served on the research team.
By genus and species, the Latin names of the four new aquatic species are Typhlocaris ayyaloni, Tethysbaena ophelicola, Metacyclops longimaxillis and Metacyclops subdolus, Dimentman told the Post. The three land species that have been named are Akrav israchanani, Ayyalonia dimentmani and Lepidospora ayyalonica.
The last species in the land group has not yet been named, but scientists have identified the group it belongs to – Collembola, Dimentman explained.
The largest animal found is the Typhlocaris ayyaloni, at between 4 and 5 centimeters long, while the smallest are both Metacyclops, at around 1 millimeter, according to Dimentman.
Perhaps even more important than the animals, however, is their food resource – the sulfur bacteria belonging to the genus Beggiotoa, Dimentman explained.
“This bacteria enables the existence of all of the ecosystem,” he said. “This is the base of the food-web. I’m sure that this was the first organism that was developed in this place. All the others came after it.”
One of the only other caves in the world comparable to this isolated Israeli wonder is the Movile Cave in Romania, which has a similar groundwater system and is also sulfuric – essential for internal energy production in place of photosynthesis, according to Frumkin.
“Both have very interesting ecosystems,” he said. “The ecosystem in the Romanian cave is larger, with many more species, but many of them also live outside the cave. They are not endemic to the cave. But in Israel, most or perhaps all are endemic to the cave.”
Frumkin stressed that many experts around the world were involved with studying the new species, as well as researching the geology, hydrology and speleogensis – origin and development – of the cave. After discovering such an array of new species in this underground cavern, Frumkin said he is optimistic that researchers could find other such marvels around Israel.
“We think this is a feasible possibility,” he said. “We know that there are other caves in the same quarry, many other caves – but this was the most exciting one, the most interesting one.”