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Nature and Landscape
Spelaeomysis bottazzii It is a stigobite crustacean, that is, a subterranean aquatic species, endemic to Puglia.
The habitat of an entire universe of creatures that have transformed their morphological features to ensure their survival is in the underground
by Emanuela Rossi, Salvatore Inguscio
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Spelaeomysis bottazzii is a blind crustacean, common to all the underground waters of Puglia, except the Subappennino Dauno, and reaches lengths of between 6.5 and 13 mm. Photo courtesy of Roberto Pepe

      Puglia holds a record that not many people know about: it is the most interesting region in Italy from a bio-spelaeological point of view. Bio-spelaeology (from bios=life, spelaion=cave, logos=discourse) is a branch of the sciences that study underground fauna. While we walk, eat and sleep, under our feet there moves a world made up mainly of small diaphanous creatures that have adapted to particular conditions like the lack of light, the relatively high rate of humidity and the scarcity of food. Their bodies have transformed in such a way as to survive in this environment. Underground animals, in fact, are eyeless and have de-pigmented bodies, while they are covered in numerous bristles and hairs with a tactile and sensory function. In many cases the populating of the underground environment has been caused by external climatic variations that have pushed the animals into more stable environments.
      44 underground species live in Puglia; they are called troglobites if terrestrial and stigobites if they are aquatic. They belong to various classes; amongst the most important we find Crustaceans, Insects and Arachnids. 28 of the 44 species are endemic, that is, they live only in Puglia. The one with the most surprising characteristics is Spelaeomysis bottazzii, a blind crustacean, belonging to the order of the Misidacea. This misida is widespread in the subterranean waters throughout Puglia, except in the Dauno Subappennino, and reaches lengths of between 6.5 and 13 mm. Eyeless and completely lacking in pigment, it boasts a remarkable lengthening of the antennae and other appendages and has a very long carapace which covers almost a third of the length of its body. The way in which it feeds is very particular; sometimes it remains still in one position, and by moving some appendages close to its thorax it creates hydrodynamic currents which push the food towards its mouth, where it gets filtered through the jaw bristles. Other times it lies on big pieces of food so as to break off portions or on pieces of calcarenite rock, to break it down and filter it, thus holding onto the tiny particles of food present in it.
      Spelaeomysys bottazzii is both euryhaline and eurytherm, that is, it can bear marked changes both in the salinity of water and in its temperature, the former attribute enabling it to live in subterranean waters near the coast, composed of briny waters. Euryhalinity seems to be connected to the origin of this crustacean and its populating of Apulian underground waters: its forefathers lived in salt water and marine transgressions and successive regressions have isolated some in the caves and in the various hypogea where some of them have survived, by adapting to the new environment. The female Spelaeomysis have a series of flattened blades called thoracic plates, which emerge from the thorax segments and form a ventral incubator pouch or marsupium in which to lay their eggs. Reproduction takes place in the deep caves, in zones with a constant temperature and which are generally very stable. The egg-bearing females lay about 15 eggs, which are bigger than those of other species of the same order. Another extraordinary peculiarity is that, once free of her offspring, the females’ appearance alters and they take on a much more youthful semblance; this strategy prevents them from being impregnated again by the male and having to go immediately into the deep cave without having time to feed.

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