Research on groundwater fauna is timely, as many groundwater pumps are falling out of use. Their removal and the destruction of old wells leads to a loss of valuable sample sites.
Just like any lake, stream or river also the water beneath our feet is teeming with life. It may be hard to believe, but in the giant maze of wet interconnected spaces within soils and rocks highly specialised animals scrape a living in eternal darkness.
These mostly tiny animals have to overcome huge challenges, because food is scarce and finding partners is difficult. And yet they have been around for a very long time in our planet’s history. Some species represent orders of animals whose “relatives” in surface waters have already become extinct. These animals are often called “living fossils”, because their body plan is so incredibly ancient.
Some species of groundwater animals are unique to Ireland. Such species are called endemic. They have diverged genetically from “relatives” in mainland Europe millions of years ago due to geographic separation. So they may indeed represent the oldest indigenous inhabitants of Ireland.
In general however, our knowledge of groundwater animals still is very limited. Just like the deep sea, the elusive groundwater is therefore one of the last largely uncharted waters in ecology research.
We do not even know yet, how many groundwater species there are in Ireland and where they live. We would also like to know of course, how these animals live and whether they are doing anything that is useful for us, e.g. by helping to keep the groundwater clean.
Some of these questions have been addressed in a recent EPA Ireland (Environmental Protection Agency) STRIVE research project.