Slovenian researchers publish in Nature Communications

Ljubljana, 28 June – Researchers of the biospeleology group of the Ljubljana Biotechnical Faculty have published in the Nature Communications journal an article which, according to the principal author Špela Borko, shows for the first time that “descendants of the ancient explosions of evolution may also be found in Europe, if you look in the right spot – underground”.

In the article titled Subterranean adaptive radiation of amphipods in Europe, the researchers of the Department of Biology at the faculty reconstructed the course of evolution of 45 billion-year-old subterranean amphipod genus.

The faculty said on its website, as it announced the article, that old groups of blind crustaceans from the genus Niphargus had dispersed from West Europe via interstitial and shallow subterranean water systems to South-Eastern Europe.

With the uplift of carbonate massifs in South-Eastern Europe from the Paratethys sea 15 million years ago, they took the opportunity to inhabit many newly-created subterranean habitats, from underground rivers and lakes to fissures just below the surface.

Today, hundreds of morphologically and ecologically diverse species live in groundwaters from Ireland to Iran, and the greatest diversity of the underground life is found precisely in South-Eastern Europe as there were several simultaneous explosions of evolution while people populated the newly-created karst of the present-day south-eastern Alps and the Dinaric Alps.

Although sudden evolutional events, when many ecologically very diverse species are created from the common ancestor in a very short time, are frequently connected with exotic places, such events were occurring in Europe several million years ago, when the continent was still similar to today’s tropics.

“Fossil evidence shows the blossoming of species diversity in Europe at the time. Later geological and climate changes resulted in the extinction of a majority of groups and today the conviction is that Europe is a rather boring continent in terms of biodiversity,” the website says.

However, as biospeleologists from the faculty believe, biodiversity in Europe should perhaps be sought underground. The head of the research Cene Fišer noted that “it [biodiversity] was especially lively precisely in the area of present-day Slovenia”.

The article, available at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-24023-w, is also signed by Peter Trontelj and Ajda Moškrič, who are also members of the biospeleology group, and Ole Seehausen of the University of Bern.