Journal Article

Collecting eco-evolutionary data in the dark: Impediments to subterranean research and how to overcome them

Mammola, S., Lunghi, E., Bilandzija, H., Cardoso, P., Grimm, V., Schmidt, S.I., Hesselberg, T., and Martínez, A.

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(1) Caves and other subterranean habitats fulfil the requirements of experimental model systems to address general questions in ecology and evolution. Yet, the harsh working conditions of these environments and the uniqueness of the subterranean organisms have challenged most attempts to pursuit standardized research. (2) Two main obstacles have synergistically hampered previous attempts. First, there is a habitat impediment related to the objective difficulties of exploring subterranean habitats and our inability to access the network of fissures that represent the elective habitat for the so-called “cave species.” Second, there is a biological impediment illustrated by the rarity of most subterranean species and their low physiological tolerance, often limiting sample size and complicating lab experiments. (3) We explore the advantages and disadvantages of four general experimental setups (in-situ, quasi in-situ, ex-situ, and in-silico) in the light of habitat and biological impediments. We also discuss the potential of indirect approaches to research. Furthermore, using bibliometric data, we provide a quantitative overview of the model organisms that scientists have exploited in the study of subterranean life. (4) Our over-arching goal is to promote caves as model systems where one can perform standardised scientific research. This is important not only to achieve an in-depth understanding of the functioning of subterranean ecosystems but also to fully exploit their long-discussed potential in addressing general scientific questions with implications beyond the boundaries of this discipline. Keywords: Anchialine; Asellus aquaticus; Astyanax; Cave laboratory; Computer simulations; Experimental design; Groundwater; Model system; Non-model organisms; Natural laboratory; Sampling strategy; Stygobite; Troglobite
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