Preserving the prehistoric prawns

Among the projects discussed at a meeting of zoo directors from Europe was the effort to save creatures beneath the site of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

The elephant in the room 521 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
The elephant in the room 521
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
Deep beneath the Benedictine Church in Tabgha, where Jesus is said to have distributed fish and bread, crawls “a living fossil,” a multilegged crustacean and “a relic from prehistoric times” that zoologists in Israel are struggling to save from extinction, said Dr. Noam Leader in an address to an auditorium filled with European zoo directors last Friday.
“The only entrance to its world is this Octagon Pool,” he said. “This is the only place in the world where this prawn lives.”
Leader was speaking at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo to delegates from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria’s annual Directors’ Day and Spring Council Meeting, which for the first time in the organization’s 19-year history was held in Jerusalem. The delegates were taken on tours of the Jerusalem Zoo and the Ramat Gan Safari and participated in management and marketing sessions with European representatives and talks about various Israeli preservation projects led by this year’s hosts.
Leader, who is head of the zoology department at Tel Aviv University’s George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, named the Galilee blind prawn as one of two species whose preservation he is working on. Its family has only four representatives in the world, all living within four caves in the Mediterranean area – two of which are in Israel. Each of the four is distinct from the others. But their habitat is endangered, mainly due to the destruction caused by the Tabgha fresh aquifer water drilling, Leader said.
“These drillings are meant to supply freshwater during drought and to prevent underground saline water from reaching the Sea of Galilee,” he said. But meanwhile, they are a threat to the cave-dwelling prawn.
In their efforts to preserve the endangered species, in 2004 Leader and his colleagues sent down a camera to begin documenting the prawns, which are both predators and scavengers. “You’re looking at an underwater world about which we know very little,” he told the conference audience as he showed them a video.
Now the team is creating a computerized underwater surveillance system so scientists can document temperatures, chemical parameters and prawn activity in real time, he explained.
“Hopefully, we can find some kind of trend between the number of prawns we can see and the behavior and any changes in the surrounding environment,” Leader said.
There is also a captive breeding program for the prawns at the zoo, directed by Dr. Noam Werner, the zoo’s zoologist, who also leads a similar effort for Eurasian sea otters, which Leader spoke about as his second “flagship species.” Until the mid-20th century, Eurasian otters were found in coastal rivers and in the Jordan River basin, but they are currently living only in the Jordan River watershed, according to Leader. Like the prawns, this population of otters is genetically distinct, even from its European counterparts.
Other speakers that afternoon presented Israel’s preservation efforts in both optimistic and pessimistic lights. Prof. Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University’s Israel Center for the Study of Bird Migration advocated peacemaking through the bird migration that affects the entire region and caring for creatures like the vultures and spotted eagles that pass through.
“Migrating birds no know boundaries,” he told the audience, joking that the same vulture that makes his temporary home in Jordan might stop over in Israel’s Hula Valley for a kosher breakfast.
“You can make a big deal about studying the vultures, but if you aren’t working together you won’t succeed,” Leshem told In Jerusalem after his presentation.
“Most of the projects we are working on should and could be relevant to our neighbors,” agreed Dr.
Yehoshua Shkedy, chief scientist of the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority, who is eager to promote regional cooperation for preservation.
While others saw preservation efforts as a bit more grim, Leader ended his presentation with a “PR statement” directed “to the Vatican” in hopes that tourism might magnify preservation initiatives. He told the audience: “In an underground spring underneath the church where Jesus fed the masses with fish and bread lives a rare creature so ancient that it probably witnessed this miraculous feat.”