Strange Life Found In Underwater Caves

By Charles Q. Choi
OurAmazingPlanet

Clues to how life evolved, not only on this planet but also possibly on alien worlds, might be found in underwater caves in the Bahamas, researchers say.

The caves in question are called “blue holes,” so-named because from the air, their entrances appear circular in shape, with different shades of blue water in and around them. There are estimated to be more than 1,000 such caves in the Bahamas, the greatest concentration of blue holes in the world.

“It’s really incredible to be swimming down a passage that no one has ever been in before, to experience that thrill of discovery,” said researcher Tom Iliffe, a marine biologistat Texas A&M University at Galveston. “At the bottom of a cave, there’s no telling what might be around the next corner.”

Iliffe and his colleagues examined three inland blue holes in the Bahamas. They discovered that layers of bacteria exist in all three, but each of these water-filled sinkholes had significantly different microbes living in them from the others. “We’re finding new forms of life that are totally unknown elsewhere on Earth,” Iliffe told OurAmazingPlanet.

Within each blue hole, the microbes the researchers found varied depending on the depth, owing to how the water in them was separated into distinct fresh- and saltwater layers as well as oxygen-poor or virtually completely oxygen-depleted layers. The blue holes also varied from each other due to differences such as food sources.

“We examined two caves on Abaco Island and one on Andros Island,” Iliffe said. “One on Abaco, at a depth of about 100 feet, had sheets of bacteria that were attached to the walls of the caves, almost one inch thick. Another cave on the same island had bacteria living within poisonous clouds of hydrogen sulfide at the boundary between fresh- and saltwater. These caves had different forms of bacteria, with the types and density changing as the light source from above grew dimmer and dimmer.”

“In the cave on Andros, we expected to find something similar, but the hydrogen sulfide layer there contained different types of bacteria,” Iliffe added. “It shows that the caves tend to have life forms that adapt to that particular habitat, and we found that some types of the bacteria could live in environments where no other forms of life could survive. This research shows how these bacteria have evolved over millions of years and have found a way to live under these extreme conditions.”

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