Research news

The Slovenian subterranean world hides and protects a rich biodiversity

Photo by Janice Li

Publish Date: 27.12.2021

Category: Outstanding research achievements, Our contribution to sustainable development goals

Sustainable development goals: 14 Life below water, 15 Life on land (Indicators)

While studying the Niphargus valachicus crustaceans, researchers from the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana, Agricultural Institute of Slovenia and University of Bern have discovered extensive adaptive radiation. In the past, this phenomenon occurring deep in the subterranean regions of the Dinara Karst led to an intense development of new species.

A major portion of biodiversity is said to originate from adaptive radiations. This is a phenomenon during which a large number of ecologically varied species develops from a common predecessor within a short period of time. The fossil record in Europe provides evidence of adaptive radiations from Europe, which took place tens of millions of years ago, when the emerging continent still looked like today's tropical regions. Later tectonic events and climate changes which peaked before the onset of the ice ages led to mass extinctions. Adaptive radiations did not recur, and it is generally believed that present-day Europe cannot claim any major species diversity. But it seems that this belief is incorrect.

The subterranean world, as unwelcoming as it may seem to us, has protected its inhabitants from the ravages of the ice ages to this day. In this study, researchers from the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana (Špela Borko, MSc. (ecology and biodiversity), Prof. Peter Trontelj, PhD, Asst. Prof. Cene Fišer, PhD), University of Bern (Prof. Ole Seehausen, PhD) and the Agricultural Institute of Slovenia (Ajda Moškrič, PhD) have shown that the Niphargus valachicus crustaceans are the surviving descendants of ancient adaptive radiations. About 50 million years ago, their at the time still marine predecessors colonised the continental waters of today's Western Europe and spread towards the southwest via interground spaces. With the rise of the Alps, Dinarides and Carpathians, they populated the emerging subterranean areas, which led to intense evolution and the development of new species. In the area of the western Balkans and northern Apennines, extensive adaptive radiation took place, which consisted of five minor radiations, and the territory of Slovenia was at the very centre of these events.

The discovery of adaptive radiations in the supposedly ecologically desolate subterranean areas is a surprise. The results obtained by the researchers have confirmed the fossil-based history of European biodiversity, and at least partially explained the Slovene subterranean biodiversity, which is remarkable on a global scale.


Figure: Adaptive radiation of Niphargus valachicus has led to the development of a large number of species, which are morphologically extremely varied. Such morphological diversity predominantly reflects the environmental conditions in which these tiny animals live. The image shows the main morphological "types"; the diversity of their body sizes is especially educational. The image is composed of photographs which were kindly provided by Denis Copilaş-Ciocianu (top left) and Teo Delić (all others). Author: Špela Borko

Source: Borko, Š., Trontelj, P., Seehausen, O., Moškrič, A., Fišer, C. A subterranean adaptive radiation of amphipods in Europe. Nature Communications 12, 3688 (2021).

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