Washington: Astronauts on ESA’s CAVES underground training course, who were sent underground for a week to learn about working in multi-cultural teams under extreme conditions, returned to the surface they were carrying a special type of woodlouse, it has been revealed.
During their six-night stay in caves in Sardinia, Italy, their scientific research included meteorology, surveying, geology and cataloguing underground life.
“Every year we scout the area to prepare for the training mission,” Loredana Bessone, course designer and project manager, said.
“This year, we noticed interesting-looking crustaceans in a small pondm” Bessone said.
The astronauts set bait near the pond and in other places to attract and identify as many life forms as possible.
“We set four lures in pre-defined areas and had two mobile baits that we placed in areas of interest,” ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen said.
Cave scientists usually leave bait for three weeks. CAVES training lasts only a week so the biological sampling programme developer, Paolo Marcia, cooked up a special menu to lure the underground life.
“I created a really stinky bait made of liver and rotten cheese,” Marcia said.
After three to four days, the astronauts chose a few specimens of the less common species and preserved them in alcohol to take above ground.
“We were concerned that not enough cave life had been collected, so I asked the astronauts to go back to the pond on the last day – and bingo!” Laura Sanna, science operations director, said.
Molecular analysis confirms that the samples belong to a new species of crustaceans. Just under 8 mm long, these animals belong to the suborder of terrestrial isopods, commonly known as woodlice.
Most crustaceans like crabs, shrimps and lobsters live in water while woodlice are the only group that have fully adapted to life on land.
The ancestors of the terrestrial isopods seem to have evolved from aquatic life to live on land. Surprisingly, the astronauts found a species that has returned to living in water, completing an evolutionary full circle.
“This find is important because the few aquatic woodlice we know of were thought to be primitive forms from which terrestrial woodlice had evolved. Now it is clear that these animals have evolved to live in water again,” isopod specialist Stefano Taiti said.
“It is changing our point of view on evolutionary processes in regards to terrestrial isopods living in an aquatic environment.
“The find also confirms the theory that evolution is not a one-way process but that species can evolve to live in previously forgotten habitats,” Taiti added.