Underground, Overground

Geographical, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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Underground, Overground


Valerio Sbordoni is a world specialist in cave fauna. His findings from expeditions in over a dozen countries have lent weight to a new theory of life on Earth

As humans invade tropical regions for timber, farming, and other development, the rainforest continues to disappear, and hundreds of thousands of species vanish into extinction. As a result, the Earth is robbed of one of its most precious resources -- that of biodiversity.

Fortunately for humankind, life beneath the rainforest is as rich as -- if not more rich than -- life above ground. For the past 35 years an Italian speleologist and professor of zoology named Valerio Sbordoni has explored the caves and sotanos, or subterranean chambers, of Mexico in search of new forms of life. He has found them in abundance. To date Sbordoni has discovered more than 150 species of hitherto unknown cave-dwelling creatures. In one sotano alone he found 42 distinct species of butterflies, an incredible variety for such an inhospitable environment.

Many of these species, Sbordoni believes, retreated underground millions of years ago to avoid extinction and adapted to unique conditions far beneath the Earth's surface. If so, their existence lends hope for the future and even possible regeneration of the rainforest. "If we are able to maintain these components of diversity," Sbordoni explains, "there is the possibility that the tropical rainforest may spread again and regenerate even after a long arid period has intervened."

Conditions for life beneath the surface are far from ideal, and Sbordoni believes that only severe climatic changes could have driven so many creatures underground. "We believe that nearly all of these species had ancestors living on the Earth, and only such massive changes could account for the migration. The change probably occurred towards the end of the last Ice Age, when glaciers retreated from vast areas of the Earth and temperatures began to vary."

Much of Sbordoni's work has been done in Mexico's state of Chiapas, where the caves and sotanos can reach depths of 350 metres and only expert speleologists can survive in them. Sbordoni has explored 140 such caves and sotanos. At 58, he combines the skills of a world-class rock climber with an unparalleled knowledge of subterranean life.

With more than 250 articles and seven books to his credit, Sbordoni enjoys a brilliant academic career. But his heart remains in the field, where to date he has led or taken part in 35 expeditions in more than a dozen countries. Few scientists have shown such devotion, enterprise and courage, risking his safety in the search for new knowledge underground. It is for this spirit that Sbordoni was honoured as an Associate Laureate in the 1998 Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

Dr Pierre Strinati of Switzerland, himself a renowned biospeleologist, points out that until Sbordoni began his study of fauna in tropical caves, the scientific world considered the subject of little interest. "Sbordoni is one of the great world specialists in cave fauna," says Strinati.

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