Evidence for a Methane-Fueled Ecosystem within Anchialine Caves of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 5:00 PM
David Brankovits1, John Pohlman1,2, Helge Niemann3, Mary Beth Leigh4, Moritz F Lehmann3 and Thomas M. Iliffe1, (1)Texas A & M University at Galveston, Galveston, TX, United States, (2)Coastal and Marine Science Center Woods Hole, USGS, Woods Hole, MA, United States, (3)University of Basel, Department of Environmental Sciences, Basel, Switzerland, (4)University of Alaska Fairbanks, Institute of Arctic Biology, Fairbanks, AK, United States
Anchialine caves within coastal karst terrains of the tropics contain distinct mixtures of fresh and marine water separated by a sharp pycnocline. The Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula contains over 1000 km of mapped cave passages, the densest known accumulation of anchialine caves in the world. Deep within the caves and beyond where vegetative detritus from the entrance pool (or cenote) is present, a surprising diversity of higher-order animals (mostly crustaceans) is found. How these ecosystems thrive in an environment where no obvious sources of food are visible is enigmatic. A decades-old study based on the simple observation of 13C-depleted biomass in the stygobitic (cave-adapted) fauna suggested biogeochemical processes related to methane-linked carbon cycling and/or other chemoautotrophic pathways as a source of energy and carbon, but was unable to identify the exact source of this material. In this study, we investigate the biogeochemistry of four anchialine caves along an 8 km transect running perpendicular to the coastline. We measured the distribution, concentration and isotopic composition of biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystem to identify the energetic sources and microbial processes that sustain life in this subsurface aquifer. High concentrations of methane (5 µM) and evidence for methane oxidation in the fresh water portion of the water column suggest methane availability and consumption. Furthermore, the presence of 13C-depleted fatty acids (e.g., C16:1ω7c with δ13C-values as low as -54.1‰) and deuterium-depleted δD values (e.g., as low as δD = -225‰) from tissues of an atyid shrimp provide evidence that methanotrophic bacteria were a substantial fraction of its diet. Molecular microbial community analyses of shrimp guts and the water column are underway to identify the methanotrophs. These findings have the potential to reframe the carbon cycle and ecosystem dynamics for an isolated, yet widespread habitat within the Earth’s interior.