Chasing ghosts in Aotearoa

posted by Christopher Laumer / on January 14th, 2011 / in Platyhelminthes

Few places capture the biologist’s imagination quite like New Zealand. A fragment of the former supercontinent Gondwana, subject to countless (and continuing) mountain-building events and glaciations, Aotearoa cradles a host of singular creatures such as the Tuatara, the giant Weta, the tiny relict Rifleman, and numerous endemic soil arthropods, hiding out in the leaf litter of the country’s own flavor of the Antarctic flora. It’s also, happily, home to two (known) species of the flatworm Prorhynchus, members of an easily-overlooked group restricted to freshwaters and humid leaf litter.

Prorhynchus in this country were first discovered almost by accident, when sampling wells on the Canterbury plain. They apparently prefer cold, stable groundwater habitats, where they reign as the apex predators of these simple ecosystems. Throw a net down in the right places, and there’s a decent chance that you’ll pull up, besides a few terrified stygian scuds, a horned Prorhynchus putealis (=”well-dweller”) – blind, wraith-white, retreating, slick with mucous, and more than anything else, enormous. Most Prorhynchus are tiny animals, some species only 0.5 mm long as adults. In New Zealand, Prorhynchus attains lengths of 7 cm or more (the creature in the video below was almost 10 cm outstretched). But for all their imposing heft, they are fragile creatures, being well-adapted to their subterranean life, and when exposed to even pale sunlight, or a slight rise of temperature, will dissolve with alarming rapidity into a formless ectoplasm. It’s easy to imagine that we don’t know very much about the biology of these animals.

Wells provide only haphazard glimpses into these ecosystems, so if they were our only means of access, we’d have to count ourselves ignorant indeed. But New Zealand is a land with a hydrology as unusual as its biology, particularly in the alps, which are incised by dozens of sprawling braided-river valleys (which can make for interesting travel experiences). Follow one of the narrow, waterweed-choked channels that feed the rivers, and, in half-an-hour’s walking, you’ll come to the head – a deep, steel-blue pool, lined by moss, unbroken graywacke cobbles at its base, with, in places, fountains of dancing sand animated by waters cold enough to numb the hand in seconds – a spring.

Natural interfaces between surface waters and the rivers beneath, springs can provide a portal into a world we rarely see. At the source, especially when the flow of water is great, groundwater fauna can sometimes become accidentally trapped in springs. They’re usually not common – but spend a few hours in the icy water pushing aside cobbles and turning over rocks, and amidst the stoneflies and snails, you’ll soon notice the sickly-seeming but vigorous sideswimmers, the threadlike, pulsating, pale earthworms, and, fleeting downward between the smoothened shingles, the ghostly Prorhynchus of New Zealand, struggling to move under its own weight.

Photos and video by Christopher Laumer, Duncan Gray, and Troy Watson, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.