Spiders, beetles and worms might look creepy, but these creatures tell us a lot about biodiversity. Students are challenged to count the creepy-crawlies’ eyes, legs and antennae and compare them with specimens found by astronauts on their underground adventure.
Secondary-school students can get a taste of finding new life. Young explorers aged 12–14 are asked to face some of the challenges of the CAVES training course, a mission that sends astronauts underground to scout uncharted areas using space procedures.
The ‘cavenauts’ venture underground on the island of Sardinia, Italy, for a week. European teenagers can share their journey by learning biological sampling techniques in the soil right around their schools.
“Life is everywhere on Earth, even under your feet, and it comes in a great variety of forms,” says Paolo Marcia, an expert on zoology and and subterranean biology from the University of Sassari, Italy.
Students can compare the biodiversity of different ecosystems on Earth. “We want to make sure they explore the richness of their surroundings and realise how life thrives in extreme environments,” adds the scientist.
ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli is just one of the astronauts that have been deep underground to sample cave organisms as part of CAVES.
“Observing the survival strategies of rare cave inhabitants is fascinating. It is interesting to analyse how life adapts to extremes from a scientific and behavioural perspective,” says Paolo.
Cave life forms have adapted to the darkness and are not easy to find. A multicultural astronaut crew identifies species living in the alien ecosystem each year, one cavenaut crew even returned to the surface carrying a new species – a type of woodlouse.
You don’t need much to detect underground life. Plastic water bottles, a glass jar, a desk lamp, ethyl alcohol and soil are the basic elements of this experiment.
A hidden world
Young explorers need to build a Berlese funnel, a widely used set-up to study insects that was invented at the beginning of the 20th century by the entomologist Antonio Berlese.
Accompanied by a leaflet detailing around 20 species of invertebrates, students can identify the small animals collected from the soil. A table must be completed with the specific characteristics of each specimen, details of the ecosystem and weather conditions.
Why are some animals white? Are they blind? Do they have a skeleton?
“We are trying to encourage scientific reasoning during the activity,” explains Marcia. “There is always something to discover in this hidden world.”