Treasure Hunting in Caribbean Caves

Latest update January 11, 2019 Started on January 1, 2019

What do pirates and the centipede-like remipedes have in common? They're both known to dwell hard-to-reach caves in the Caribbean. Through this portal we'll bring these rarely visited locales and poorly understood critters to your screen.

January 1, 2019
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In The Field

What is an engineer doing in Caribbean caves? I joined the expedition representing the Bioinspiration Lab - part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) - studying and comparing the swimming mechanics of various marine invertebrates. In recent years, one of the animals we have focused on is the polychaete Tomopteris, a deep-sea worm that can be found near our home base in Moss Landing, California (have a look at this mesmerizing video!). Here in the TCI however, we are looking at remipedes, which are similar in that they use a large number of swimming appendages of comparable size. The big difference with Tomopteris is that they are crustaceans. It is very interesting to look at the similarities and differences between these animals, which behave similarly but are phylogenetically no more closely related than humans are to sea stars!
In this image you can see Jørgen Olesen, Lauren Ballou and Tom Iliffe gathered around a microscope setup in our temporary lab to look at a remipede swimming around - upside-down!


Marine biologists in action! Nearing the conclusion of our Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 10-day Turks and Caicos Caves Expedition exploring anchialine caves and interstitial sands. Our team, including a very generous local group kept very busy sorting, photographing, preserving, and cataloging the myriad of animals that we have collected from the depths of the TCI caves. With much hard work by all members of our team, all major objectives were accomplished. These include collection of the elusive swimming red worm: Pelagomacellicephala iliffei, along with all four known remipede species from these islands (plus a likely new species!!!), and many other cave-adapted animals including copepods, amphipods, isopods, fairy shrimp, and nerillid worms.


After a very successful cave dive in North Caicos we finally encountered the highly wanted scaleworm. With much joy we immediately rushed home to get started with the experiments. In this picture we are preparing the worms with formalin in order to make future muscle studies. The worms are unfortunately not huge fans of not being in the caves so we couldn’t spend too much time in-between the experiments. Going directly from taking high-speed footage with lasers to prepare the specimens with formalin sometimes leaves you with interesting looks, in this case with a pair of fashionable orange laser goggles and blue gloves.


One of the most significant sites we discovered appeared more like a woodland pond than a cave. Even so, we set up to dive and explore. As divers descended, the water became so cloudy, it was impossible to see. At any moment we felt we would run headfirst into the mud bottom of the pond. Then at 40 ft. (12 m), the water abruptly cleared so much that visibility was limited only by the brightness of our dive lights. Numerous Agostocaris (a remarkable cave shrimp known exclusively from a handful of caves in the Bahamas archipelago and the island of Cozumel) became aware of our presence and dashed away tail first. At 80 ft. (24 m), the walls of the cave disappeared into the darkness as the shaft widened. At this point, remipedes and a variety of other cave-dwellers materialized out of the dark, enticing us to fumble for vials and begin our collections. The water itself was distinctly stratified with abrupt fluctuation in temperature, salinity and obvious wisps of gray hydrogen sulfide along with its accompanying rotten egg smell. All too soon, we ran out of collection vials, while at the same time, our pressure gauges and dive computers indicated our need to ascend. Once our decompression obligations were cleared, we ended our venture from the depths and surfaced with big smiles on our faces. Job well done!


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Love the Science!

Island caves provide a fascinating variety of aquatic habitats and strange lifeforms. However, reaching the water can present special problems. For one of our prime targets, a hilltop cave on Providenciales island, we had to negotiate a 50 foot (15 m) vertical drop to access water. Although climbing down this sheer subterranean cliff was a hair-raising experience, getting back out presented even more of a challenge to be overcome. It was a thrill to see that the animals we discovered here in 1982 were still present and the water quality had not deteriorated.

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Another great day today! Part of the expedition team went back to Conch Bar Cave on Middle Caicos, which required catching the 6:30 AM sunrise ferry over to the other island. With the help of local guide Mark we snorkeled all the way through to the other end of the cave, which was completely dry in sections, with large chambers in between, both deep and shallow. We had high hopes to find Pelagomacellicephala iliffei - a striking red worm - which has been described from this very cave, and named after our very own Prof. Tom Iliffe. We took our time, looking everywhere in the shallow sections of the cave, swimming at at snail's pace, 4 people strong. Sadly, we did not find the elusive Pelagomacellicephala (just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?), but were able to collect a range of animals from the tiny Stygiomysis and even smaller planktonic life forms to the much larger - and rather striking - shrimp Barbouria. We even saw a few killifish at the far end of the cave! Meanwhile, Tom and Paul were diving a different site and we all spent some time sampling the shallower pools, and we managed to come home with a cooler full of interesting animals to categorize and study in our labs. Take a look at the pictures for an impression of the day. The search for P. iliffei continues...

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Check out our expedition group picture! This is the entire team, from left to right:

  • Jørgen Olesen, Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Alejandro Martinez, National Research Council of Italy, Institute for Water Research, Italy
  • Katrine Worsaae, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Brett C. Gonzalez, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC
  • Paul Heinerth, Cave dive instructor, Florida
  • Lauren Ballou, Texas A&M University, Texas
  • Joost Daniels, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, California
  • Sarit Truskey, Northeastern University, Massachusetts; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC
  • Marc Larsen, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Rhonda Hart, chef extraordinaire, Florida
  • Tom Iliffe, Texas A&M University, Texas

Sadly, Karen Osborn from the Smithsonian could not make it here, but she is the driving force behind the expedition which is funded by the Smithsonian's Global Genome Initiative.


An international expedition takes a lot of gear and preparation, even more so if you are planning on visiting rarely accessed areas. With special permission from the Turks & Caicos Department of Environment and Coastal Resources we will be visiting submerged cave systems. But how do you know where to look? Prof. Tom Iliffe from Texas A&M University has done exploratory dives years ago, and relies on satellite imagery and reports from local experts to find other promising caves. These personal contacts are vital to a successful expedition, without the great help from locals it would be much harder to achieve our goals of sampling biodiversity in anchialine ("near-the-sea") caves and interstitial ("between sediment grains") environments.

Expedition Background

They say space is the final frontier... but there are plenty of areas on earth that we still don't know much about, usually because they hard hard to access. Think for example of the deep sea and the arctic. However, such places can host a large diversity of animals specially adapted to their unique environment. Caves form another such habitat. On this expedition we explore rarely visited submerged caves in the Turks and Caicos islands to study their biodiversity. An international team of 11 scientists from the Smithsonian Institute, Texas A&M University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and the University of Copenhagen is diving caves on scuba to collect these elusive creatures, and bringing them into their mobile labs to study the genetic diversity, unique body shapes and behaviors that can be found in cave-dwelling and bottom-dwelling animals.


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