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The Living World Below Us

The cave amphipod (Norcapensis mandibulis) is an endemic genus known from only four caves at an altitude of about 200 metres in Cape Range, WA. Photo: Bill Humphreys, Western Australian Museum

The cave amphipod (Norcapensis mandibulis) is an endemic genus known from only four caves at an altitude of about 200 metres in Cape Range, WA. Photo: Bill Humphreys, Western Australian Museum

By Mandy Thoo

Researchers are revealing the astonishing life in Australia’s underworld, leaving many intrigued about its role in the health of our groundwaters.

Mandy Thoo is a freelance science writer.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Beneath the very feet of Australians lives a mysterious group of animals known as stygofauna. Named after the River Styx, where dead souls cross from Earth to Hades in Greek mythology, these little creatures dwell in perpetual darkness in groundwater, and were long thought to be rare in Australia. Only in the past two decades has the startling richness and strangeness of this sub­terranean life come to light.

“It’s almost like when Captain Cook first reached our shores and saw kangaroos,” say Prof Craig Simmons and Prof Peter Cook of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training. “We’re aware that these strange creatures exist but we are discovering new ones all the time, and we still know little of what they do.”

“These little Australians are really just becoming known to science, and they continually surprise us with their diversity and quaint characteristics,” Simmons says. “So far as the public is concerned, we’ve barely begun to explore this fascinating underground world of curious creatures.”

Most of our stygofauna are crustaceans, but they also include worms, gastropods, beetles, mites and fish. Some happen to live in groundwater by chance, some are temporary dwellers, but most can’t survive outside the underworld.

They typically have little or no sight but have other senses enhanced to guide them in a lightless world. Most...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.