In Romania, there lies a bleak and barren land. The plains have nothing notable except for one thing – a cave beneath the land which has led a cloistered existence for 5.5 million years!
While Earth was evolving prodigiously, with Primates descending from the trees and evolving into Homo Sapiens, this world beneath existed completely sequestered from the outer world. In 1986, workers who were testing the land for a power plant stumbled across the cave by accident. Only a few dozen people have ever seen the interior of the cave.
The cave is called Movile Cave, and it is basically an age-old time capsule. The Movile Cave is believed to be the most isolated ecosystem in the world, and scientists are only just beginning to unravel its secrets.
More than 20 metres underground, the cave is pitch dark and full of toxic gasses. It also holds a lake that reeks of rotten eggs. The atmosphere is thick with carbon dioxide (100 times more than outside air!), methane and ammonia. The air inside the cave only contains 10 percent oxygen, half the normal amount, which means that visitors can only last about 5 hours before their kidneys ‘cave’ in.
Movile Cave has a thick layer of clay above it, which doesn’t allow sunlight, food or water to seep in from above. There aren’t even any traces of the radioactive metals from the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which are spread throughout the groundwater and soil near the cave. It sounds like this cave is pretty uninhabitable, yet the cave is teeming with life! So far, 48 different species have been identified, including 33 unique ones! There are leeches that swim on the water to prey on the hapless earthworms. Shrimps and snails graze on the microbial mat.
Without sunlight, the animals in Movile Cave seem to be lacking a source of food. However, Movile’s lake is covered with billions of autotrophic bacteria which can turn inorganic compounds into food. The bacteria use chemosynthesis- energy from chemical reactions- to help generate food. Millions of years of isolation have transformed the animals in the cave, however. Many are born without eyes (which would be useless in the dark). Almost all are translucent as they have lost pigment in their skin. Many also have extra-long antennae to help them navigate in the darkness.
The world within a world is a tantalizing concept, staple to sci-fi and fantasy writers, but so far it only existed in the realms of imagination. The Movile Cave exemplifies best that truth can, in fact, be stranger than fiction.