You probably wouldn’t think a subterranean a cave where light fears to tread is any place for things to spawn, but Belgian zoologist Gaetan Borognie has been to this literal Upside Down.
According to Motherboard, Borognie dared to venture 12,000 feet beneath the surface back in 2009 to search for a creature that could possibly tell us what aliens are like, or at least Martian aliens. Mephisto worms are some of the most extreme extremophiles in existence. Much like the tardigrade, these superpowered nematodes can survive without oxygen and being frozen in liquid nitrogen. You can drop one from a height of 40 miles and it will still be squirming. No wonder the scientist’s research team nicknamed this relentless survivor the “devil worm.”
Searching for creatures that cheat death is Borognie’s obsession. He recently plunged deep into South Africa’s Beatrix Goldmine seeking out more of devil worms, and will soon be taking his search above ground by seeking them out in South African hot springs.
The mystery behind another type of worm could also give us insight into what could be waiting for us deep below the dry red Martian dust. Borognie discovered another nematode, which was thought to live exclusively in marine habitats, miles underground in the landlocked middle of South Africa. He also has a theory about how it ended up there. Prehistoric South Africa was submerged in the ocean. As it emerged, any water that didn’t recede or evaporate still could have been trapped beneath the surface along with the worms that inhabited it.
So what can these bizarre life forms tell us about potential life on Mars? If there is anything alive on the Red Planet, Borognie theorizes it must live (and possibly thrive) far beneath the sun-battered surface. Understanding animals that can survive extreme conditions on Earth is crucial for scientists to better anticipate what they could possibly find on Mars if Curiosity’s drill ever gets started.
“Nematodes can survive almost anything,” Borgonie told Motherboard. “What I’ve learned over the years is that ‘impossible’ is a word that cannot apply to biology. Life always finds a way.”
Meaning, if we were to go the way of the dinosaurs because of a massive asteroid collision or end up eaten in a zombie apocalypse, these things would probably still be creeping around in the eldritch depths, oblivious to the chaos above. Enter hot springs and why Borognie is so interested in studying them. Nematodes and tardigrades and anything else that is as close to invincible as biology can get could possibly emerge through them and press the restart button on life.
What that life could evolve into is anyone’s guess—and, at least for now, awesome sci-fi movie fodder.