Research scientists from Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO andCharles Darwin University used fishing rods and handlines to plumb the depthsof underground aquifers in the Northern Territory revealing a diverse varietyof tiny aquatic animals known as stygofauna, mostly between 0.3 and 10millimetres in length.

The largest animal found – a shrimp called Parisia unguis – measured up to20 millimetres and is likely the apex predator in these communities.

The presence of a predator indicates a complex food chain within the Beetaloostygofaunal communities.

The Beetaloo animals are different from stygofauna recorded from moreextensively studied Western Australian aquifers, with new genera and speciesof crustaceans likely to be present in the Beetaloo.

Results confirm Northern Territory aquifers support a diverse range ofstygofaunal species. All Beetaloo stygofaunal communities sampled weredominated by crustaceans – shrimps, amphipods, ostracods, copepods andsyncarids.

CSIRO scientist Dr Gavin Rees said the presence of the same stygofaunalspecies at widely separated sites across the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer couldindicate high connectivity within the aquifer which would need to beconsidered in light of shale gas development proposals.

“CSIRO’s Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance isundertaking further research to quantify the risk of contamination impacts onstygofauna from possible industrial spill events,” Dr Rees said.

CSIRO’s Dr Daryl Nielsen and Charles Darwin University’s Dr StefanieOberprieler fishing for stygofauna in central Northern Territory .

“This research takes into account migration pathways and processes, includingadsorption, dilution and microbial metabolism in soils and aquifers as well asthe suspected high connectivity in groundwater systems.”

CDU Professor Jenny Davis said stygofauna were the ultimate climate changeadapters, having moved underground as surface waters of ancient inlandAustralia dried out.

“It’s incredibly exciting because some of these crustaceans are new to science– there are not many places left in the world where you can find a whole rangeof new animals in one location,” Professor Davis said.

Researchers from CSIRO and the university’s Research Institute for Environmentand Livelihoods collected samples from 26 groundwater bores and two springs inAugust and October 2019, across a distance of approximately 500 km, from thesub-tropical Mataranka region in the north to the semi-arid Barkly Tablelands(Barkly Stock Route) in the south.

In addition to fishing rods and nets, researchers also used water pumps andcutting-edge eDNA analysis to detect the presence of known and unknownstygofauna in groundwater samples.

The collaborative pilot project was funded through CSIRO’s GISERA andaddressed knowledge gaps about stygofauna in line with the Final Report of theScientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory.

The stygofauna sampling program is part of a suite of CSIRO’s GISERA researchprojects either completed or in progress in the Northern Territory, in linewith Scientific Inquiry recommendations. Baseline studies of methane andgroundwater characteristics are complete.

New CSIRO GISERA projects in progress include microbial degradation of shalegas-related chemicals, minimising potential emissions from gas wells throughimproved leak sealing technologies and well decommissioning practices,development of high quality spatial data to guide land management practices,and assessment of options to offset life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions.

Results of these studies are important for informing appropriate policy andmanagement responses to shale gas development proposals.

Image: The blind shrimp shrimp Parisia unguis is the apex predator of theBeetaloo stygofauna.

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