Imagine looking down from the edge of a wide, circular hole gaping hundreds of feet down into the earth. It may look bottomless, but it’s not: a subterranean forest thrives below, hiding new species never seen before by human eyes. These “heavenly pits” are scattered throughout China’s wilderness and attract only the most daring and curious explorers.
Hi, I’m Kyle Obermann, Nature Contributor for the China Current, showing China’s wild side.
This past spring, scientists in China dropped into a sinkhole, rapelling into a shocking discovery: trees over one-hundred feet tall and a surprising amount of biodiversity that is thought to possibly contain new species. Despite being so secluded, vegetation reached up to the scientist’s shoulders.
These sinkholes, called “heavenly pits” in Mandarin, are scattered throughout China’s karst landscape. Just in Guangxi Province’s Leye County alone, where the discovery was made, there are 30 such pits. Such karst sinkholes not only provide habitat for rare or migrating species but help recharge aquifers, areas that hold groundwater, as well.
I’ve spoken to spelunking scientists in China who are worried that such natural wonders are being wantonly polluted. There are too many caves in China that some local villagers have traditionally used them as trash dumps. This endangers the many endemic species that have specially adapted to the delicate conditions in such areas. Many are worried that without greater protection for these ecosystems, some species will disappear before they are even discoverd. For example, currently, China is home to the most species of cave fish in the world and scientists believe there may be still many undiscovered species in thiese sensitive environments.
The good news is that shortly after this most recent discovery, China announced the opening of the Hanzhong Heavelny Pit International Research Institute to better understand these pits.
Some local officials are also considering whether to open up some of the pits to tourism in order to boost the local economy. But some are also evaluating the ecological wealth of these places and working to understand their environments better first. These “heavenly pits” are certainly some of the most incredible and unique natural wonders China has. Hopefully, the sense of divine mystery they inspire will help protect them as well.