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Submarine Hideout for Ancient Life

EAST MALVERN, AUSTRALIA--Battling cold, disorientation, and claustrophobic conditions, underwater cavers have located what may be the missing link between two major caves in the spectacular Jenolan Caves system, beneath the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. The underwater caves seem to be an oasis for rare and ancient life-forms.

For years, cavers have been looking for a route between two large caves that are linked by the small underground Jenolan River, but efforts to find the route from one, Spider Cave, ended in a gushing well too small to slip through. But divers from the Sydney University Speleological Society, using seismic and gravity probes, discovered that another cave lay under the rocks around the well. After squeezing through the rock pile, they entered the chamber and found a conduit at the bottom which led to yet another one that was dubbed the End Zone. There they spied a horizontal passage, which they hope will lead them to Mammoth Cave 300 meters to the north.

The two new chambers may offer new clues about the geological history of the 23-kilometer-long cave system. Sydney University geologist Armstrong Osborne speculates that the original limestone was deposited some 400 million years ago by an ancient shallow sea. After the sea subsided, a river carved out the caves. At various points over the next 200 million years, the caves were filled again, either by rising seas or glacial deposits, and carved out again. The scientists plan to analyze the rocks for both marine and glacial deposits to test Osborne's theory.

Already researchers have discovered that the underwater caves harbor syncarids, crustaceans that have escaped extinction as the surrounding habitat dried out. Says Peter Serov, a syncarid expert at the Australian Museum in Sydney, "These cave syncarids are a time capsule from prehistoric Australia."