3 New Species Found in Underwater Cave in Canary Islands

Texas A&M professor and world-leading cave researcher, Tom Iliffe, and others discovered numerous new species in an underwater cave a mile long in the Canary Islands recently. The cave was in Lanzarote off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. One of the species might be one of the oldest crustaceans in the world. It might be about 200 millions years old, from the time of dinosaurs.

Two of the new species discovered were tiny worms smaller than a grain of rice. Also discovered was a crustacean without eyes but with poisonous fangs. The researchers found the species in “the Tunnel de la Atlantida, the world’s longest submarine lava tube.” The species were found far inside the cave in complete darkness. Iliffe says: “”The small worms we discovered were found in a large, conical mound of white sand, which had filtered down from a hole in the cave ceiling. We collected several samples of the sand and when we examined it later, we found these new species.”


The research team named one of the new worms after Iliffe (naming it Sphaerosyllis iliffei). This worm has no color, no eyes, and is the first found from its family (Syllidae) that is adapted to living in a cave.

According to the press release, the other worm was named after a local artist, Cesar Manrique, the designer of the “Atlantida Tunnel” (Tunnel to Atlantis) — “the touristic portion of the cave which divers must transit in order to reach the underwater portions of the lava tube.”

The crustacean is “about one inch in length, has no eyes, its head has specialized mouthparts and venom injecting fangs, has a body with 20-24 segments, and because it was found in the total blackness of the cave, has a body that is almost transparent.” It is believed to be so old because similar species (of the class “Remipedia”) have been found in the Caribbean and in Australia. Iliffe states: “It likely had its origins during early stages of the formation of the Atlantic Ocean millions of years ago when the continents of Europe/Africa and North/South America were in close proximity. So it’s thought remipedes could be at least 200 million years old, a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.” Remipedes contain venomous fangs that can kill small shrimp and other small marine life but which cannot hurt humans.

According to the press release, Iliffe may be the leading cave explorer in the world. “Iliffe has discovered several hundred species of marine life over the past 30 years and has probably explored more underwater caves ā€“ at least 1,500 ā€“ than anyone in the world, examining such caves on islands and continental margins in the Caribbean, Indo-Pacific, Mediterranean and North Atlantic.” In addition to Iliffe, the research team included researchers from Pennsylvania State University, the University of La Laguna in Spain, and two German universities ā€“ the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover and the University of Hamburg.

Findings are published in the current issue of Marine Biology. More information on this story can be found in the press release here. Additional information can also be found on Tom Iliffe’s website.

Image credit 1: Caneles via flickr under a Creative Commons license

Image credit 2: Caneles via flickr under a Creative Commons license

  • Spirit Dreamer

    What do these worms look as???? Please show a photo of the worm(s)…

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