Israeli scientists said on Wednesday they had discovered a prehistoric ecosystem dating back millions of years containing eight previously unknown species of crustaceans and invertebrates similar to scorpions.
In a press conference held Wednesday morning at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the researchers said the discovery came about when a small opening was found, leading to a cave extending to a depth of 100 meters beneath the surface of a quarry in the vicinity of Ramle. The quarry is operated by cement manufacturer Nesher Industries.
"Until now eight species of animals were found in the cave, all of them unknown to science," said Dr. Hanan Dimantman, a biologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He said the cave's ecosystem probably dates back around five million years when the Mediterranean Sea covered parts of Israel.
The cave was completely sealed off from the world, including from water and nutrients seeping through rock crevices above. Scientists who discovered the cave believe it has been intact for millions of years.
"Every species we examined had no eyes which means they lost their sight due to evolution," said Dimantman.
Samples of the animals discovered in the cave were sent for DNA tests which found they were unique, he said. The cave has been closed off as scientists conduct a more detailed survey.
"This is a cave of fantastic biodiversity," Dimantman said.
The cave, which has been dubbed the Ayalon Cave, is "unique in the world," said Professor Amos Frumkin of the Hebrew University Department of Geography. This is due mainly to its isolation from the outside world, since the cave's surface is situated under a layer of chalk that is impenetrable to water. The cave, with its branches, extends over some 2.5 kilometers, making it Israel's second largest limestone cave. It is to remain closed to the public to permit further scientific research.
The invertebrate animals found in the cave - four seawater and freshwater crustaceans and four terrestrial species - are related to but different from other, similar life forms known to scientists. The species have been sent to biological experts in both Israel and abroad for further analysis and dating. It is estimated that these species are millions of years old.
Also found in the cave were bacteria that serve as the basic food source in the ecosystem.
"The eight species found thus far are only the beginning" of what promises to be "a fantastic biodiversity," Dimentman said. He said that he expects further exploration to reveal several other unique life forms.
The animals found there were all discovered live, except for a blind species of scorpion, although Dimentman is certain that live scorpions will be discovered in further explorations and also probably an animal or animals which feed on the scorpions.
The underground cave includes an underground lake, in which the crustaceans were found. The lake is part of the Yarkon-Taninim aquifer, one of Israel's two aquifers, yet is different in temperature and chemical composition from the main waters of the aquifer. The lake's temperature and salinity indicates that its source is deep underground.
Among the interesting features of the discoveries thus far in the cave is that two of the crustaceans are seawater species and two others are of a types found in fresh or brackish water. This can provide insights into events occurring millions of years ago regarding the history of ancient bodies of water in the region.
In addition to Frumkin, who heads the unit for cave research in the Department of Geography, and Dimentman, others involved in the project are Professor Dov Por and Professor Aharon Oren of the Institute of Life Sciences, graduate student Israel Na'aman, and several others. The Israel Water Commission has assisted in the research, as has Nesher Industries.
Yoel Feldschue, director-general of Nesher Industries, said Wednesday that Nesher will preserve the ecological ecosystem which has been revealed in the center of its quarry in order to avoid any damage to the important findings there. He added in that regard that he is hopeful that the planning authorities will enable the company to operate in alternate areas in order to help preserve the scientific site.