Sulfidic cave ecosystems – the hidden unique life bellow our feet

Convergent evolution, development and adaptations of crustaceans from chemosynthesis-based cave ecosystems (PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2020-2843)


Just beneath the surface of the earth, in the dark, lies a vast unknown fascinating ecosystem with a plethora of species adapted to high concentration of methane gases and sulphur and to low oxygen levels. These chemolithotrophically – based subsurface ecosystems shares its largely unusual nature with sulphurrich deep-sea hydrothermal vents. The  EVO-DEVO-CAVE project investigate the life forms from continental sulfidic cave ecosystems, and adaptations and evolution of species in this hostile environment.

EVO-DEVO-CAVE is a Romanian National Plan research project funded by UEFISCU, Romania (PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2020-2843, 2021 – 2023). The overarching goal of the project, led by the Institute of Speleology “Emil Racovita”, Cluj Department is to assess the biodiversity, evolutionary adaptation and morphological convergence in groundwater taxa from chemosynthesis-based cave ecosystems.


Sulfidic cave ecosystems are extreme groundwater ecosystems showing high levels of hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonium, heavy metals (iron, zinc, and copper), low oxygen concentration up to hypoxia and sometimes warm waters. The environments in these caves are hostile to the majority of organisms, yet several crustaceans thrive in them and rely on autochthonous food produced chemoautotrophically by sulfur-oxidizing bacteria forming complex trophic levels. Owing to their unusual chemistry, they are considered as hosting unique life forms supported entirely by chemoautotrophy, i.e. autochthonous food sources produced by sulfur-oxidizing bacteria forming complex trophic networks. Such species with unique morphological and ecological traits, and their habitat can be considered remarkable “evolutionary hotspots”.


In EVO-DEVO-CAVE we will combine the traditional methods use in morphological taxonomy, laboratory physiological tests and novel metagenomic techniques. Expansion of our current understanding of the life in sulfidic cave ecosystems will be the basis for identifying first the diversity of distinct groups of aquatic invertebrates and assessing the role of these organisms to such a particular ecosystem. Second, gauging the adaptations and toleration of groundwater crustaceans to different stresses in thermo-mineral sulfidic groundwaters (e.g., toxic levels of gases or lethally low oxygen concentrations) will allow understanding the high functional biodiversity of crustaceans associated with sulfidic waters.


Evo-Devo-Cave will be performed in the most known sulfidic cave ecosystems worldwide: Movile Cave (Romania), Frasassi Cave (Italy) and Melyssotrypa Cave (Greece). Evo-Devo-Cave imply a complete structural and functional biodiversity assessment in cave systems addressing several of the recommendations outlined issues of the European Habitat Directive (42/92, H 8310) related to cave habitats.

Romania, Italy, Greece

Three different cases of study in Europe

See the case studies


Project start: 1 January 2021

Project end: 1 January 2024

Funding: Executive Unit for Financing Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation (UEFISCDI) Address:  21-25 Mendeleev Street, Bucharest 010362 Romania

Project number: PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2020-2843


Our host: Romanian Academy Cluj Branch, Address: Republicii 9, 400015 Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Our institution: Institute of Speleology ‘Emil Racovitza’ Cluj Department, Address: Clinicilor 5, 400006 Cluj-Napoca, Romania,

Project coordinator: Dr. Sanda Iepure

Keywords: Taxonomy, morphology adaptive radiation, evolutionary, biology, groundwater ecotoxicity, conservation


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