New Mutant Bug Threatens Altamira Prehistoric Cave Paintings

Spanish scientists have discovered a new species of mutant bug living in the UNESCO-protected Altamira caves boasting some of the world’s most important prehistoric paintings, and it is believed they could be spreading a fungus that is damaging them.

The discovery of the new species, which has been named Pseudosinella altamirensis because it was found in the Altamira caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the northern Spanish region of Cantabria, has been published in the magazine ZooKeys after a study led by researchers of the Navarra University, including Enrique Baquero and Rafael Jordana, along with biologists Lucia Labrada and Carlos Gonzalez Luque, earlier this month.

Professor Baquero, 52, said in an interview with Real Press that the species was first found in 2000 but has been identified as a new species now.

He also believes that “it has been living in the caves for long time, but the first time it was caught was in 2000 and it is totally different to other species in other caves of the world”.

The new species is a springtail, also known as a collembola from the family of Pseudosinella, which used to be classified as insects.

These mutant bugs have six paws and an organ that helps them jump.

According to a press statement from the University of Navarra published on 9th December, researchers suspect the bug could be spreading microorganisms that have either become stuck to their bodies or are being transmitted via faecal matter in the cave of Altamira.

Professor Baquero told Real Press: “The paintings are very sensitive and some springtails could transport fungus spores that could damage them.”

He added: “It is not that they are going to be damaged completely, but it is important to know whether that species is able to transport fungus and how badly the paintings could be damaged.”

The researcher is calling for further investigation to determine how much of a threat this new species represents.

Deer in the cave of Altamira. (Pedro Saura-Museo Altamira/Real Press)

Lucia Labrada, another researcher who participated in the project, said in the press statement obtained by Real Press that “we have recommended that the Altamira Museum investigates if that species is exchanging bacteria with the colonies living in the roofs, walls and ground, contributing to the spread and diversification of the bacteria communities in the cave, especially those linked with the deterioration”.

This collembola is very small, measuring only one or two millimetres, and it eats fungus. According to Professor Baquero, “they could have lived there for thousands of years”.

He added that its ancestors might have gone into the cave through cracks in the cave walls many years ago and mutated, “evolving into a new species”.

He also said that “they could have already been present when the cave was painted or even before that, as in order to have evolved into a different species, we estimate that it would have taken thousands of years”.

Regarding how many of the insects are currently living in the cave, Professor Baquero said that it is impossible to know. He said that there are similar insects living outside the cave, but they are a different colour, due to the light, which gives them a different pigmentation.

Working in the preservation of the cave. (Museo Altamira/Real Press)

“In the new species, the number of eyes has been reduced. They only have five eyes compared to the eight that the ones outside the cave have”, he added.

Pilar Fatas, the director of the Altamira Museum, told Real Press that “our preservation plan involves following all the risks linked with environmental and microbiological matters, and studying spiders and other insects living in the cave.

“So, those species, even if they have been recently discovered, have already been taken into account.”

She added that there is no cause for additional alarm about the preservation of the cave and that the experts are working hard to keep it safe.

The Altamira caves have some of the most important prehistoric paintings in the world. It was discovered in 1868 by Modesto Cubillas and later studied by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. The paintings belong to the Magdalenian and Solutrean era (Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic; from 17,000 to 20,000 years ago).

It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.