Extremophile Worm Discovered in Poisonous Sulphur Cave

A new worm species has been discovered in a cave filled with toxic sulphur gas in Colorado – something creeping right out of a horror movie. The findings are published in Zootaxa.

Photo credits: National Geographic, via YouTube.
Photo credits: National Geographic, via YouTube.

The newly-found cave worm is blood-red, and thrives in the dark. Pretty much a vampire-worm, yes. It stays away from the light, and lives in an environment that would be poisonous to humans. Yes, a monster-worm it is. It has been named Limnodrilus sulphurensis, in reference to its extreme conditions of living. It was first spotted back in 2007 by biologist David Steinmann who was out exploring Sulphur Cave in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It was only identified as a new species 1,000-hours-of-research later.

Given the kind of habitat in which it lives, the worm is identified as an extremophile.

As scary as it might sound, the Limnodrilus sulphurensis is actually very small: it is just 2.5 centimeters in length, thin as a pencil lead. Oh wait till you hear the gory details: the worms actually stick together in clumps, decorating the cave walls. Definitely something from horror stories. While they are otherwise transparent, they appear to be red because of their blood.

The poisonous sulphur gas is not the only unwelcoming aspect of the place. Sulphuric acid so concentrated that it could tear off clothing falls from the ceiling of the cave. The levels of hydrogen sulphide are said to be around 20 times higher than those normally characterising hydrogen sulphide levels in deep-sea vents, according to co-author of the paper, biologist Olav Giere from the University of Hamburg in Germany.

The environment is not only extreme, but is also actually unpleasant. Apart from the “belching toxic gases”, Steinmann describes it as a place smelling of rotten eggs in a statement to National Geographic.

How are the worms able to live in such a horrible place, you might ask. Steinmann explains that these cave worms actually show that life can be sustained in toxic environments.

“They prove that life can survive by metabolising hydrogen sulphide, which is toxic to us, and then those things can be eaten by things like worms or other creatures to create a food chain.”

The new worm feeds on sulphur-oxidising bacteria. Yes, you heard right – the worms are not the only inhabitants of the cave. Rather, the latter is full of spiders, and insects like flies and beetles, all of which live without the Sun’s energy, as they stay in the dark.

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