Leave a bunch of alcohol and stinky cheese next to a pile of bat poop in a cave, and you never know who will show up to investigate!

When researchers did precisely this in a little-explored cavern in Turkmenistan, their odorous lures attracted a never-before-recorded species of bug, a two-pronged bristletail to be specific, which also happens to be the first fully subterranean land animal ever documented in the country.

The new species of cave-dwelling dipluran, Turkmenicampa mirabilis. Image: Alberto Sendra

The cave, known as Kaptarhana, shares the Koytendag Mountain region with over 300 other caves and sinkholes in a rich karstic area of eastern Turkmenistan. The surrounding landscape contains deserts, plains, ravines and one of the largest cave systems in Asia, but the animal life of this part of the planet has not been explored very much. Overall, the challenging geography, vast undeveloped wilderness and complex political history of the Central Asian region can make it a difficult place to conduct research.

But in 2015, Boris Sket of the University of Ljubljani in Slovenia and Pavel Stoev of the National Museum of Natural History in Bulgaria embarked on a mission to assess the caverns of the Koytendag State Natural Reserve, a quest endorsed by environmental officials in Turkmenistan and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. During this survey, they became the first speleobiologists (cave-life scientists) to explore the cave since 1972.

The name of Kaptarhana cave means "house of pigeons", because its entrance is a popular nesting place for the birds. But previous exploration of this 450-metre-long (1,500ft) cave has also found snails, nematodes, beetles, spiders and horseshoe bats, among others. Many of these animals were discovered by Sket and Skoev during their survey, but one creature stood out: a new species they named Turkmenicampa mirabilis.

The entrance of Kaptarhana cave in the Lebap Province of eastern Turkmenistan. Image: Aleksandr Degtyarev

Turkmenicampa belongs to a group called diplurans, or bristletails, close cousins of insects that often live in the soil. Its slender body is only a few millimetres long, though it has lengthy antennae sticking of its head and paired appendages known as cerci off its rear. As for lifestyle preferences, Turkmenicampa appears to spend its entire life in the dark depths of Kaptarhana cave.

"The cave was very spacious, with large boulders and passages at different levels, making the process difficult for the collection and discovery of cryptic animals (such as diplurans)," the researchers explain in a new study published in the journal Subterranean Biology.

The two scientists spent eight hours searching the cave without ever seeing these secretive little cave-dwellers, but fortunately their cheesy lures were more successful.

"For sampling, pitfall traps, with Ethylene glycol and smelly cheese as bait, were set along the main gallery of the cave, mostly in humid places, in close proximity to large boulders and guano heaps," the study describes.

All records of the bugs came from the biggest chamber of the cave, about 200 metres (650ft) from the entrance, an area that never sees any natural light. As a group, bristletails lack eyes and pigment, so it's no surprise to see these characteristics in Turkmenicampa too, but the insects also displayed a bunch of other traits shared by their cave-dwelling kin, such as elongated bodies, extra-long antennae and cerci, and particularly well developed organs for smelling their way through the darkness. This new species is a cave critter through and through.

"What we have here is not only a new remarkable organism, but also an amazing and unusual cave critter that has undergone a long evolutionary journey to adapt to the underground environment of Central Asia," said the study's lead author, Alberto Sendra of the University of Alcalá in Spain.

Not only is Turkmenicampa the first terrestrial troglobite known from Turkmenistan, but it's also the first dipluran to be recorded in Central Asia (comprising Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan). "The new finding provides further support to the importance of Kaptarhana as a refuge for a number of endemic invertebrates," the researchers note.

There are nearly 1,000 known species of two-pronged bristletails in the world, and a few of them inhabit other parts of Asia, including a cave-dwelling species in Afghanistan, but the researchers suspect there are more waiting to be discovered across the continent as cave habitats continue to be explored.

So far, Turkmenicampa has been found only in Kaptarhana cave, and it may even be completely restricted to that one place, but there are other caves in Central Asia still to be studied, and this species – and many others – may yet be found there.



Top header image: Pixabay