The Ancient Britons: Groundwater fauna survived extreme climate changes over tens of millions of years across NW Europe

Caitriona McInerney, Louise Maurice, Anne L. Robertson, Lee R.F.D. Knight, Joerg Arnscheidt, Chris Venditti, James Dooley, Thomas Mathers, Severine Matthijs, Karin Eriksson, Graham Proudlove, Bernd Haenfling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Citations (Scopus)


Global climate changes during the Cenozoic (65.5 - 0 Ma) caused major biological range shifts and extinctions. In Northern Europe, for example, a pattern of few endemics and the dominance of wide-ranging species is thought to have been determined by the Pleistocene (2.59 – 0.01 Ma) glaciations. This study, in contrast, reveals an ancient subsurface fauna endemic to Britain and Ireland. Using a Bayesian phylogenetic approach we found that two species of stygobitic invertebrates (genus Niphargus) have not only survived the entire Pleistocene in refugia but have persisted for at least 19.5 million years. Other Niphargus species form distinct cryptic taxa that diverged from their nearest continental relative between 5.6 and 1.0 Ma. The study also reveals an unusual biogeographical pattern in the Niphargus genus. It originated in Northwest Europe ~88 Ma and underwent a gradual range expansion. Phylogenetic diversity and species age are highest in Northwest Europe suggesting resilience to extreme climate change, and strongly contrasting the patterns seen in surface fauna. However, species diversity is highest in Southeast Europe indicating that once the genus spread to these areas (~ 25 Ma), geomorphological and climatic conditions enabled much higher diversification. Our study highlights that groundwater ecosystems provide an important contribution to biodiversity and offer insight into the interactions between biological and climatic processes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1153-1166
Number of pages14
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number5
Early online date16 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Mar 2014


  • groundwater
  • groundwater ecology
  • Niphargus
  • Ireland
  • Britain
  • Europe
  • glaciation
  • ancestral state reconstruction
  • Bayesian dating analysis
  • cave
  • phylogeography
  • glacial
  • survival
  • subterranean
  • crustacean
  • crustacea
  • amphipoda
  • climate change


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