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Thu Dec 8, 2016, 08:43 PM

Deep in an ancient cave an unexpected form of life [View all]

Deep in an ancient cave … an unexpected form of life
Dec 8, 2016 / Lars Abromeit

A team of geologists has been exploring the caves beneath the table mountains of Venezuela, where new lifeforms may have been quietly developing for millions of years. Journalist Lars Abromeit describes the expedition into the unknown.

We are in Canaracuni, a village on the northern edge of the Amazon basin. A concert of cicadas, frogs and night swallows drifts over the mud huts of the Ye’kuana people. A few hunters sit around the fire, working on traps and arrows. Some 2,300 meters (7,546 feet) above us rises a mysterious mountain — the Ye’kuana call it “Sarisariñama,” one of the largest of the more than 100 table mountains in the area bordered by Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. These mountains are incomprehensibly old, the last remains of a gigantic plateau of sand that covered this region more than 1.7 billion years ago. Geologist Francesco Sauro (TED Talk: Deep under the earth’s surface, discovering beauty and science), who has been exploring caves since his childhood and is a professor at the University of Bologna in Italy, is co-leading an exploration into the underworld of this particular table mountain, or tepui. What can the caves below tell us about primitive times? And what creatures live in it? These are the questions that Sauro, together with his geology colleague Marco Mecchia, ten other speleologists from the La Venta and Theraphosa cave research associations, and I have come to here to answer.

Untold numbers of simas, or sinkholes, break through summit plateau of the Sarisariñama and may often lead the way to larger catacombs underground. Photo by Robbie Shone

We descend on Sarisariñama via helicopter. As we step onto the ground, a wonderful fragrance surrounds us, from orchids, tree lilies and trees densely covered with mosses and other plants. It’s like we’ve landed on a strange jungle planet.

Tectonic forces raised the sandstone plateau of the tepuis over hundreds of millions of years. Then the plateau was slowly eroded and transformed by rain and storms. Here, evolution has created new species, including carnivorous plants lurking between the mists and dozens of unique bromeliads.


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Judi Lynn Dec 2016 OP
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