So-called extremophiles, like blind, transparent shrimp that thrive deep within the cavernous bowels of the Mexican jungle, are stretching the limits of where life can flourish.
Deep in the dense jungle of Mexico, pools of water that dot the thick vegetation may resemble the shallow ponds found in forests all over the world. But these seemingly boring puddles are actually deep sinkholes, or cenotes as they are known locally, and form portals to another world.
Thomas Iliffe and David Brankovits aren’t hesitant to enter these watery portals. Clad in wet suits and headlamps, and lugging multiple oxygen tanks and sample jars, the two biologists and their colleagues have plunged into the murky cenote waters many times.
As they dive down, sometimes as deep as 80 feet below the surface, the water becomes so crystal clear it almost seems as if they could remove their respirators and take a breath – despite being sometimes as far as 1,000 feet from breathable air.
At times they have to wriggle through tight spots in the rock to enter roomy caverns or dodge stalactites and stalagmites, relics of a time before this subterranean world was flooded. At more than 160 miles long, the Ox Bel Ha cave system that lies beneath the Yucatán Peninsula is the longest explored underwater cave system in the world.
“To be down there is otherworldly, to put it mildly,” says Dr. Iliffe of Texas A&M University, who has been diving in caves like these for more than 30 years.
As the divers glide through this pitch-black watery world, their electric lamps occasionally alight on a tiny flash of white in the water. This is what they came to study: life.
In this seemingly inhospitable environment, a menagerie of microbes and tiny crustaceans, just millimeters in length, share a home with fish that grow up to 6 or 8 inches long. All the animals are blind and many are white or partially transparent, as they have no adaptive need for sight or flashy colors in the pitch dark.