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A spell-binding underground world The pearl of the system is the “white cave”; with its thousands of pure white concretions it is considered one of the most beautiful in the world.
Many animal species, with morphological variations, have adapted to living underground in the dark by Emanuela Rossi and Salvatore Inguscio
Castellana (Bari). A wall of the wonderful “white cave”. Photo Archivio Fotogramma
On the outskirts of Castellana, a town in the province of Bari, there was a huge abyss about which stories and legends abounded; it was said to be home to witches and other malevolent figures, refuge of lost souls, a place frequented by ogres and mysterious creatures, and a site of strange atmospheric phenomena.
So the locals kept their distance and observed it with timorous respect. Until in 1938, when Professor Franco Anelli, of the Italian Institute of Spelaeology, after having made a visit to the nearby cave in Putignano, decided to see the Castellana chasm. A swift reconnaissance sufficed to make him realise that it was a Karst formation of interest and he therefore decided to investigate the mystery that had always surrounded this abyss. With a ladder and a safety-rope he climbed down into the depths. Every pot-holer would have wanted to be in his boots when he got to the bottom of this chasm, that not only did not finish there, but was also the entrance to an enormous cavern full of concretions of rare beauty.
The research and explorations went on until they finished delineating the complete profile of an immense subterranean void. Given their extraordinary beauty the caves were opened to tourists and were such a great success that it was decided to change the name of the town itself to “Castellana Grotte”. Entrances were carved out for tourists, while the abyss, called “the gully”, was fenced off and made safe, and is still there, with its depth of 60 meters and length of 100, to let the tourist have a glimpse of the grandeur and mystery of this underground world.
These caves are a typical Karst phenomenon. The main creator of their formation was the water, which, over thousands of years, penetrated into the fissures in the calcareous rock and carved it, physically and chemically, giving rise to a river and forming subterranean voids, which first became bigger and then began to boast “decorations” of diverse forms of stalactites and stalagmites. The process that leads to the formation of the concretions is the opposite of that which leads to the creation of the subterranean voids: the drip that emerges on the cave ceiling loses a little carbon dioxide and so, following certain laws of chemistry, there is the beginning of the deposition of a tiny quantity of calcium carbonate; deposition after deposition a concretion is formed and we have, for example, a stalactite. Also when the drip falls onto the ground it loses a little carbon dioxide and so from the bottom up a new concretion, in this case, a stalagmite, is formed.
In the Castellana caves you can follow two tourist trails, of different lengths. The longer one leads to the famous “white cave”, so full of candid concretions that it is considered one of the most beautiful caves in the world. Thousands of concretions of various shapes and sizes, of a pure bright white, produce a blinding light and induce a respectful silence in the visitor to this magic place which seems to have been placed there to seal off, so beautifully, the final tract of the Karst system. The color of the concretions depends on the purity of the dissolved rocks and in the “white cave” touches on perfection.
The caves spread over about three kilometres and have also lateral ramifications that are just as interesting as the main ones, but are closed to the public and access is only allowed to expert pot-holers.
This underground world has another treasure, too: the numerous species of animals that have adapted to living underground and in the dark with morphological variations like the loss of the visual organs and of color. These organisms are called troglobes and some of them are real living fossils, inasmuch as their ancestors took refuge in the caves while their relatives on the outside are extinct.
In a far corner of a side branch, during a recent bio-spelaeological research campaign, a battle field where the two largest troglobe species had fought it out in the cave was found: the protagonists were a pseudo-scorpion (Hadoblothrus gigas) and a beetle (Italodytes stammeri). The remains of numerous Italodytes lay on a carbonatic shelf, evidence of how the “Magnificent Giant of the Ade” (this is the literal translation of the scientific name of the scorpion) had fought with it so many times, and won. The “Italian Diver dedicated to Stammer”, or rather Italodytes, has a typical balloon-shaped abdomen, and under its leathery wings conserves air full of humidity which enables it to move even in less humid areas; this is why it is called the “diver”, while the Hadoblothrus has highly developed appendixes to its mouth, called palps; these must have been the winning weapons that put an end to the matches fought out in the gloom of the great cave of Castellana.
WHERE: Castellana (BARI)