Steamboat Springs: The Blood-Red Worms from Sulphur Cave now have a name

Limnodrilus Sulphurensis photo via the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Limnodrilus Sulphurensis photo via the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

From the Denver Museum of Nature and Science:

A new species of worm was discovered at a toxic cave in Steamboat Springs, Colorado by David Steinmann, Research Associate of the Zoology Department at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The unusual worms were named Limnodrilus sulphurensis in the scientific journal Zootaxa, with the name being chosen by Steven Fend of the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists from the United States, Germany, and Sweden collaborated to describe the new worm species. Genetic analysis by Dr. Christer Erseus confirmed that the cave worms are a distinct new species, currently only known from Steamboat Springs. The worms live in a very hostile environment, thus they are extremophiles.

When David Steinmann first crawled into Sulphur Cave during the summer of 2007, he immediately noticed numerous clumps of bright red, blood-colored worms living in the small stream that flows through the cave. He suspected that the worms could be a new species previously unknown to science, and after over 8 years of work the worms are now formally described and named. The worms are small, about an inch long and as thin as a pencil lead, with transparent body segments. Their blood has hemoglobin that binds oxygen amazingly well since they live in a low oxygen environment. The new Limnodrilus sulphurensis worms are now part of the permanent collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, being housed with over one million other Zoology Department specimens in the state-of-the-art Avenir Collections Center.

Sulphur Cave is wet, muddy, slimy and stinky, smelling like rotten eggs. Native American legends spoke of the cave as a sacred and ceremonial place, being a gateway to the underworld. The entrance is dark and foreboding, spewing noxious clouds of steam into the air. There are lethal levels of toxic gases inside the cave, with hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide at concentrations that can cause a person to pass out after a few breaths, which could be followed by death. Acid drips on the cave ceiling will burn holes in one’s clothes, and the cave is too low for standing in most areas. Yet inside Sulphur Cave there exists a unique ecosystem teeming with worms, spiders, flies, beetles, springtails, and millipedes that can somehow survive the harsh conditions.

Steinmann uses special equipment and SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) to safely enter Sulphur Cave. A rescue team stands by to assist incase a problem were to occur. David is a member of the National Speleological Society and he has been researching cave life for over 20 years. The City of Steamboat Springs owns Sulphur Cave and permission was obtained to enter and study the cave. People should not attempt to enter Sulphur Cave.

Knowing that worms and other creatures can thrive in such an inhospitable place is an amazing testament to the tenacity of life. Dr. Olav Giere, who is an expert on extreme aquatic habitats at the University of Hamburg in Germany, noted that the hydrogen sulfide levels in the Sulphur Cave stream are 10 times higher than those found at deep sea volcanic vent ecosystems. The Sulphur Cave worms survive by eating sulfur oxidizing bacteria. These worms do not depend upon the sun’s energy to live, they are part of a chemotrophic ecosystem based upon the oxidation of hydrogen sulfide. Similar ecosystems could potentially exist on other planets like Mars, or even in other solar systems, where isolated caves may harbor unknown species of living organisms. Further studies regarding the remarkable adaptations of these incredible worms are continuing in both Europe and at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

From KUNC (Jackie Fortier):

Native American legends spoke of a gateway to the underworld, with noxious clouds of steam spewing from the Earth. Humans would pass out in a few minutes if they enter the cave because of the lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. Located on the side of Steamboat Springs’ Howelsen Hill, the ancient cave was formed by hot spring water flowing through the travertine rock.

This dark, slimy, stinky site, Sulphur Cave Spring, is also the only place in the world a new species of tiny worms have been found.

About an inch long, with transparent body segments, the worms are the thickness of pencil lead. David Steinmann, research associate of the zoology department at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science first discovered the worms when he crawled into Sulphur Cave Spring in 2007.

The cave trip was because of a tip from his caving friends, who had a hunch a new species was waiting to be discovered there.

“It’s a very unusual environment, I went in looking for a new species of invertebrate or insect, so the purpose of my visit was to look for a new species.”

It took over eight years of work to formally describe and name them — Limnodrilus sulphurensis — as noted in the scientific journal Zootaxa [.pdf]. A genetic analysis by Dr. Christer Eseus found that the worms are a distinct new species found only in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Steinmann, an avid caver, used a self-contained breathing apparatus in order to go into Sulphur Cave Spring.

“As I went in and my wife Debbie was behind me, I immediately noticed in the little stream in the cave little masses of red worms wiggling around and large clumps of worms on the floor of the cave. They are pretty small, but there are thousands of worms.”

The cave isn’t the only place in Steamboat Springs that Steinmann has found the worms. He thinks they may live in the bedrock caves beneath the town, but by far the largest concentration is in the sulphur cave.

“Something prehistorically must have been able to move into the water of Sulphur Cave and somehow adapted – maybe living in an area where there is more freshwater meeting the hot springs habitat and continued to adapt to the sulphurous environment,” said Steinmann, who thinks the worms evolved from similar species that are found in Colorado’s streams and lakes.

Worm experts aren’t sure why they cluster together. It’s a very unusual behavior for worms. Steinmann said it may be because they have no discernible predators, or it’s a mating behavior.

Their hemoglobin rich blood gives these new worms a dark red color and may be the key to medical benefits for humans. A group of scientists in France are studying extremophile worms for a new antibiotic. Steinmann will be collaborating and sending them the sulphur cave worms to aid their research.

Even for worms, Steinmann said those found in Sulphur cave bind oxygen extremely well. Long-term medical benefits for people with circulatory problems for example, could be derived from their blood.

“These worms have an extremely unusual network of capillaries and blood vessels at the surface of their skin that is very complicated and dense that helps them absorb oxygen from the water in their cave environment.”

Steinmann cautions people not to go into Sulphur Cave Spring because of the air’s toxicity, but he plans to go back and look for other potential new species that might be waiting in its depths.

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