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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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A&M diver explores unique environments

Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher Tom Iliffe has written more than 130 papers, discovered more than 300 new species of marine life and been featured on a PBS special. Soon Iliffe will add a full National Geographic episode to his list of accolades.
The National Geographic feature, entitled “Blue Holes,” will air on the National Geographic Channel March 26 at 7:30 p.m. and again at 10:30 p.m. CST as part of the channel’s “Next Wave” series. It will feature diving work Iliffe did on numerous caves last summer in the Bahamas, he said. Some of the caves had never been explored. The piece will focus on blue holes, underwater caves named after the characteristic dark blue color of the water and the round shape of the entrance. When you fly over one, it looks like a dark, blue dot on the ocean, Iliffe said.
These caves, occurring internally on land or just off the shore, contain a variety of exotic underwater life.
“Such structures are inhabited by a diverse array of previously unknown species, some of which are so primitive they qualify as ‘living fossils’,” Iliffe said. “Others are closely related to deep sea species. Because they live in the perpetual darkness of underwater caves, most of these sea creatures don’t have eyes or pigment.”
These animals provide a vital link to the prehistoric world because they are untouched by outside forces. However, this may not always be the case, Iliffe said.
“Since such anchialine cave animals are frequently limited to a single cave or cave system, they are particularly vulnerable to pollution or habitat destruction, which could result in their extinction,” he said.
Iliffe discovered his interest in anchialine caves during his 11-year stretch as a research scientist at the Bermuda Biological Station. Anchialine caves are formed in limestone or volcanic rock that have been flooded with seawater. They include some of the longest submerged caves on Earth.
After leaving Bermuda, Iliffe became an associate professor of marine biology at A&M-Galveston where he currently teaches courses in biospeleology and scientific diving. Iliffe is also certified to instruct diving and cave diving.
“My primary area of research involves investigations of the composition, origins, evolution, biogeography and conservation of animals inhabiting marine caves,” Iliffe said. “Such habitats, accessible only through the use of specialized diving technology, rival the deep sea thermal vents for the number of new taxa and scientific importance.”
The study of the caves, their formation and the marine life in them has taken Iliffe all around the world. He has organized and led research expeditions to marine and freshwater caves in traditional diving regions such as the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, the Philippines and Australia, as well as Belize, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Iceland.
More information about Iliffe and his expeditions can be found at his Web site at http://www.cavebiology.com.
The site, created by Iliffe, includes detailed descriptions and pictures of his excursions into the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Yucatan peninsula. Site visitors are also able to view pictures and information about animal species he has discovered miles below the ocean’s surface.

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