King of the Cave: New Centipede on Top of Food Chain in Sulphur-Soaked Cavern

The king of the Movile cave in Romania is a diminutive one, at under 2 inches in length.

A photo of the newly discovered centipede species Cryptops speleorex, the largest inhabitant of Romania’s Movile cave known to date. (Mihai Baciu, GESS LAB, Mangalia)

(CN) — Scientists have discovered a new species of centipede able to survive in the most inhabitable of places, deep within a Romanian cave with an unforgiving atmosphere and some of the harshest environmental conditions.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Zookeys, international scientists Varpu Vahtera from the University of Turku in Finland, Pavel Stoev from the National Museum of Natural History in Bulgaria, and Nesrine Akkari from the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, Austria, discuss their discovery of this fascinating creature that appears to be the largest inhabitant of the otherworldly cave.

The cave Movile of Romania lies underneath a barren terrain, and while its atmosphere should be toxic to most creatures, the cave teems with anomalous life. It contains half the normal amount of oxygen needed to sustain life, and the creatures within survive off the bacteria that thrive from the methane and carbon dioxide in the air.

The cave became isolated from the rest of the world over 5.5 million years ago, and therefore is filled with never before seen spiders, scorpions, centipedes, and many creatures still yet to be discovered. 

Access to this cave is extremely limited and hard to come by, regulated by authorities due to the peril that entry entails. To enter, one must be lowered down by a rope more than 65 feet through a very narrow entrance devoid of light. Being inside means wearing an oxygen-supplying device and visitors are limited to 5- to 6-hour explorations to avoid damage to their bodies from the extreme lack of oxygen. 

Furthermore, many of the passages are only accessible through underwater entrances leading to air pockets called air bells, all of which makes traversing the caves a daunting task.

“It’s pretty warm, and very humid so it feels warmer than it is, and of course with a boiler suit and helmet on, that doesn’t help,” said microbiologist Rich Boden from the University of Plymouth (U.K.), the 29th person to explore the cave, in a separate study. “The pool of warm, sulphidic water stinks of rotting eggs or burnt rubber when you disturb it as hydrogen sulphide is given off.”

Scientists exploring the Movile cave in Romania. (Mihai Baciu, GESS LAB, Mangalia)

This cave was discovered by complete accident, in 1986 when Romanian workers surveyed the land in search of a suitable location for a power plant. It was first traversed by the geologist and speleologist Cristian Lascu and has been fascinating scientists ever since.

So far, the scientific community only knows of 51 invertebrate species here, and 34 of those are endemic to the Romanian cave. The cave contains strictly troglobiont species that live strictly in underground caves. Some of the most notable species found here include the troglobiont water scorpion, liocranid and nesticid spiders, cave leeches and many more.

A long-lived debate existed as to whether the cave also contained surface-dwelling species, but the authors were unconvinced and eager to find the truth for themselves. Members of the team, speleologists Serban Sarbu, who proposed the research topic in the beginning, and Alexandra Maria Hillebrand made the treacherous descent into the Movile cave. The two returned to the surface with, among other newly collected specimens, the centipede of the hour.

The newest recognized homebody in this cave is the centipede Cryptops speleorex, the largest recorded animal from this underground ecosystem with a length of approximately 1 ½ to 2 inches. It is physically quite similar to another troglobiont centipede, the Cryptops anomalans, but with longer antennae and legs and 13-17 saw teeth. It is yellow-brown in color, with light brown bands and dark brown legs.

“Our results confirmed our doubts and revealed that the Movile centipede is morphologically and genetically different, suggesting that it has been evolving from its closest surface-dwelling relative over the course of millions of years into an entirely new taxon that is better adapted to life in the never-ending darkness,” the study authors said.

They note the centipedes of the cave are fascinating, among other reasons, for being able to adapt to live here as it is rare for their species.

“The centipede we described is a venomous predator, by far the largest of the previously described animals from this cave. Thinking of its top rank in this subterranean system, we decided to name the species Cryptops speleorex, which can be translated to the ‘King of the cave,’” they said.

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