ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Scientists have discovered a new shrimp-like species in a gypsum cave in southeastern New Mexico, only a few dozen miles from the famous caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
The species of amphipod was unknown before being discovered about a month ago in the Burton Flats area east of Carlsbad, said Jim Goodbar, the Bureau of Land Management's senior cave specialist. The agency announced the discovery Tuesday.
Blind, about a half-inch long and almost translucent, the amphipod was found in a subterranean pool inside a cave no more than 80 feet from the surface. The cave had been explored before, but samples had never been taken of the water until a biological inventory was done as part of plans to expand potash mining in the area.
For Goodbar and other cave researchers, short of rocketing into space, the depths of the earth represent one of the last unexplored frontiers for humankind.
"You never know what you're going to find down there," Goodbar said. "One of the interesting things about this is these guys, these critters have been down there for tens of thousands of years, millions of years and we're just getting around to finding them."
More surveys of the area are planned, Goodbar said.
The new species has not been named, but officials said it has been grouped with the Parabogidiella (para-bo-GIDDY-ella) genus, which was first described in 1980 by John Holsinger with the Biological Sciences Department at Old Dominion University in Virginia.
An amphipod expert, Holsinger said Tuesday the species found near Carlsbad is different from the other single species in the genus. He is currently working on its complete description.
Members of the Bogidiellidea family have been documented in parts of Mexico, but the new species represents the family's most northern extent, he said.
Scientists know little about the new species. They're already making guesses at whether it's carnivorous or feeds on bacteria, minerals or vegetative bits that find their way into the cave's water.
"They're very cryptic," Holsinger said. "These things are usually found in groundwater and you can very rarely observe them firsthand."
Goodbar said the Bureau of Land Management is planning for a series of monitoring wells near the Burton Flats caves to keep an eye on water levels once the mining company begins pumping water for its proposed operations. The agency is developing mitigation plans that call for an end to pumping in the area if a certain threshold is reached.
The BLM is working on balancing protection of the new species and the area's water supply with development of the region's vast potash resources, Goodbar said.
The water in the caves is replenished by rainwater soaking down through cracks and crevices in the Earth's surface and fresh water from a shallow underground aquifer.
"I think the implications are that we really need to protect the groundwater aquifers because there are species there that live nowhere else on Earth," Goodbar said.