Thomas M. Iliffe

Department of Marine Biology

"While cave diving has been called ‘The Most Dangerous Science’, it offers limitless opportunities to discover new life and heretofore unknown places."

Learn more about Thomas M. Iliffe

Get To Know Thomas M. Iliffe

What in your life drew you to your current field of study?

From my earliest memories, the water has been a source of entwined fascination and mystery. I grew up on the shores of the Great Lakes and worked as a lifeguard there over my summers. This led to a recreational scuba class while in college, followed by acceptance into the Oceanography graduate program at Florida State University. I was especially fortunate to participate in the US Navy sponsored “Scientist in the Sea” graduate dive training program, taught by Navy Sealab aquanauts and scientists. After completing my PhD degree, I was hired as a Research Scientist at the Bermuda Biological Station. On this isolated mid-Atlantic island, more than 100 coastal caves contain clear blue, sea level pools extending to unknown depths and extent. I was immediately hooked and after receiving appropriate cave diving training, I began exploring these complex caves, immediately finding numerous new species of blind white crustaceans. I have continued these cave investigations in numerous locations in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean, South Pacific and Indian Seas and Oceans ever since.

What do you hope your students gain from studying or working with you?

My courses are all very field oriented. Of course, student safety is our highest concern and as such, we strive instill a bond of teamwork so that students are constantly looking out for each other, while we look out for them. We start by teaching simple skills and gradually build to more complex and challenging exercises so students rapidly gain confidence in their new abilities. We go to rarely visited sites by obtaining permission to access caves on private property or by providing students with the skills and training allowing then to go beyond the limits of traditional recreational scuba diving. In all, we seek to impart a deep and diverse appreciation of the wonders of the subsea and subterranean realms by actually showing students virtually everything discussed in lecture.

What are you passionate about in your personal life?

I am continuously searching for new places and new things to discover. I am intrigued by the unknown and unexplored. I think that is why I have been drawn to caves and to the sea, but by combining caving and diving, I have found the ultimate challenge. It has led me down a path like no other I could ever imagine.

Biodiversity, evolution and conservation of animals inhabiting marine caves; application of scientific and technical diving to provide access to otherwise inaccessible portions of extensive cave systems.

Ph.D. Biochemistry, University of Texas Medical Branch, 1977; dissertation: "Identified neurons that may use glycine as a neurotransmitter"

M.S. Oceanography, Florida State University, 1973; thesis: "Dissolved hydrocarbons and fatty acids in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico Loop Current and the Caribbean Sea"

B.S. Biochemistry, Penn State University, 1970


SCUBA Diving Instructor, National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), 1975 to present

Cave Diving Instructor, National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section, 1981 to present.

Courses Taught
MARB 325: Biospeleology
MARB 340, 656: Tropical Marine Ecology
MARB 345, 616:
Introduction to Scientific Diving
MARB 350, 617: Methods in Research Diving


Martínez, A., B.C. Gonzalez, J. Núñez, H. Wilkens, P. Oromí, T.M. Iliffe and K. Worsaae (2016). Guide to the anchialine ecosystems of Jameos del Agua and Túnel de la Atlántida, Cabildo de Lanzarote, Spain, 310 pp., ISBN-13: 978-84-95938-92-3

Recent Journal Articles

Brankovits, D., J.W. Pohlman, H. Niemann, M.B. Leigh, M.C. Leewis, K.W. Becker, T.M. Iliffe, F. Alvarez, M.F. Lehmann and B. Phillips (2017). Methane- and dissolved organic carbon-fueled microbial loop supports a tropical subterranean estuary ecosystem. Nature Communications, 9:1835. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01776-x

Cresswell, J.N., P.J. van Hengstum, T.M. Iliffe, B.E. Williams and G. Nolan (2017). Anthropogenic infilling of a Bermudian sinkhole and its impact on sedimentation and benthic foraminifera in the adjacent anchialine cave environment. International Journal of Speleology, 46(3):409-425. DOI: 10.5038/1827-806X.46.3.2128

Jurado-Rivera, J.A., J. Pons, F. Alvarez, A. Botello, W.F. Humphreys, T.J. Page, T.M. Iliffe, E. Willassen, K. Meland, C. Juan and D. Jaume (2017). Phylogenetic evidence that both ancient vicariance and dispersal have contributed to the biogeographic patterns of anchialine cave shrimps. Scientific Reports, 7:2852. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-03107-y

Gonzalez, B.C., A. Martínez, E. Borda, T.M. Iliffe, D. Eibye‐Jacobsen and K. Worsaae (2017). Phylogeny and systematics of Aphroditiformia. Cladistics, . DOI: 10.1111/cla.12202

Olesen, J., K. Meland, H. Glenner, P.J. Van Hengstum and T.M. Iliffe (2017). Xibalbanus cozumelensis, a new species of Remipedia (Crustacea) from Cozumel, Mexico, and a molecular phylogeny of Xibalbanus on the Yucatán Peninsula. European Journal of Taxonomy, 316:1-27. DOI: 10.5852/ejt.2017.316

Alvarez, F., T.M. Iliffe and J.L. Villalobos (2017). A new anchialine species of Naushonia (Decapoda: Gebiidea: Laomediidae) from the Bahamas. Zootaxa, 4258(2):187-194. DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.4258.2.8

Suárez-Morales, E., A. Cervantes-Martínez, M.A. Gutiérrez-Aguirre and T.M. Iliffe (2017). A new Speleophria (Copepoda, Misophrioida) from an anchialine cave of the Yucatán Peninsula with comments on the biogeography of the genus. Bulletin of Marine Science, 93(3):863-878. DOI: 10.5343/bms.2017.1012

Suárez-Morales, E., M.A. Gutiérrez-Aguirre, A. Cervantes-Martínez and T.M. Iliffe (2017). A new anchialine Stephos Scott from the Yucatan Peninsula with notes on the biogeography and diversity of the genus (Copepoda, Calanoida, Stephidae). ZooKeys, 671:1-17. DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.671.12052

Bruce, N.L., S. Brix, N. Balfour, T.C. Kihara, A.M. Weigand, S. Mehterian and T.M. Iliffe (2017). A new genus for Cirolana troglexuma Botosaneanu & Iliffe, 1997, an anchialine cave dwelling cirolanid isopod (Crustacea, Isopoda, Cirolanidae) from the Bahamas. Subterranean Biology, 21:57–92. DOI: 10.3897/subtbiol.21.11181


TV Documentary Films

Sept. 2016, BBC Network/PBS, “Forces of Nature”, segment on my cave diving research in the Dominican Republic included in a four-episode documentary special event series

Dec. 2014, National Geographic Channel, “Drain the Bermuda Triangle”, 60-minute documentary including my cave diving research in the Bahamas

Apr. 2011, Smithsonian Institution and History Channel documentary on cave biology research to be on continuous display at the National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Hall

Mar. 2011, France 3 TV, Thalassa: “Le Trou Bleu des Bahamas, 30-minute documentary film on Bahamas cave biology research

Nov. 2010, Bermuda Environmental Alliance: “Bermuda’s Mystical Caves, 30-minute documentary film on cave biology research and conservation in Bermuda

Apr. 2010, Discovery Canada TV Daily Planet series, “Bermuda’s Mystical Caves 5-minute documentary film on cave biology research and conservation in Bermuda

Mar. 2010, PBS NOVA: “Extreme Cave Diving, hour-long documentary on Bahamas cave diving filmed and produced by National Geographic

Dec. 2005, Outdoor Channel: “Modern Day Explorers: Mysteries of the Yucatan, hour-long documentary film featuring my cave research in Yucatan.

Mar. 2003: National Geographic Channel episode of “The Next Wave entitled “Blue Holes” features my cave diving research in the Bahamas.

Oct. 2001: Oregon Field Guide documentary “Cave Diving features my research in a submerged lava tube cave in Oregon.

1998: NDR North German Public TV documentary “The Mystical Underwater Caves of the Bahamas features my cave research in Andros and Grand Bahama Islands.

Nov. 1995: PBS episode of “The New Explorers entitled “The Most Dangerous Science” features my cave research in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Jan. 1988: PBS documentary “Infinite Voyage features my cave research in the Galapagos Islands.

Grants and Fellowships

2013-2014: National Geographic Society, “Diving exploration and faunal survey of anchialine caves in Christmas Island, Indian Ocean”, $28,000

2013-2016: Texas A&M University – CONACYT, “What promotes species diversification in anchialine habitats?”, $24,000

2009-2012: NOAA Ocean Exploration, “Search for Bermuda's Deep Water Caves”, $426,284

2009-12: Texas A&M University – CONACYT, “Stygobitic Crustacea from the Texas-Mexico border region: a binational fauna?”, $24,000

2006-08: NOAA International Coral Reef Conservation Program, “Groundwater pollution and its impact on Bermuda’s reefs and inshore waters”, $38,500

2003-08: National Science Foundation #0315903, “Survey of Anchialine Cave Fauna of the Bahama Islands”, $240,000

2003-04: Texas A&M University – CONACYT, “Ecology, biodiversity and hydrology of anchialine caves: the Ox Bel Ha system, Quintana Roo, Mexico”, $25,000

2002-04: NOAA National Undersea Research Program, “Survey of the Anchialine Cave Fauna of the Exuma Cays”, $57,826

1998-2002: National Science Foundation, “Anchialine Cave Invertebrates of the Bahama Islands”, $72,000

1997-98: NASA Johnson Space Center, Information Dynamics, Inc., “Underwater Video Monitoring of Astronaut Training Activities at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, Johnson Space Center”, $109,948

1996: NOAA National Undersea Research Program, “Marine Cave and Crevicular Fauna of the Exumas”, $3,100

1994-95: NOAA National Undersea Research Program, “Marine Cave Fauna of the Exuma Islands, Bahamas”, $2,584

1994-95: DGAPA - Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, “Ecologia y Biodiversidad de un sistema Anquihalino basado en la Produccion Quimioautotrofica” with Javier Alcocer, $40,000

1993: NOAA National Undersea Research Program, “Deep water crevicular fauna of the 'Wall' at Lee Stocking Island, Bahamas”

1992-94: National Geographic Society (4725-92), "Marine Cave Fauna of the Atlantida Tunnel", $25,000

1989: Smithsonian Institution Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems Program, “Marine Cave Fauna of Belize”, $4,300

1987-89: National Science Foundation (BSR-8700079), “Biogeography and Origins of an Oceanic Cave Fauna”, $50,000

1987-88: National Geographic Society (3412-86), “Marine Cave Fauna of the Indo-Pacific”, $23,000

1987: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “ROV Investigations of Deep Water Caves in Bermuda”, $20,000

1985-86: National Science Foundation (BSR-8417494), “Marine Cave Fauna of the Indo-Pacific”, $33,880

1985: National Academy of Sciences, 6 month exchange visit to Romania and 1 month to Czechoslovakia, $21,000

1983-86: National Science Foundation (BSR-8215672), “Survey of an Oceanic Cave Fauna”, $134,016

1983: National Academy of Sciences, 5 month exchange visit to Romania, $15,000

1981: National Academy of Sciences, 6 month exchange visit to Romania, $18,000

1980-82: National Science Foundation (DEB-8001836), “Cave Fauna of an Oceanic Island”, $38,500

Awards & Recognition

2017: TAMUS Kenneth L. Clinton Award for Mexico/Central America Studies

2016: National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section Science Award

2016: Founding taxonomic editor for the World Register of Marine Cave Species (WRoMCS), a comprehensive taxonomic and ecological database of species known from marine and anchialine cave environments worldwide

2013: Honored by being the namesake for the 2013 Fall TAMUG Salt Camp

2013: Cover story on my cave diving research appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Spirit - the Texas A&M Foundation Magazine.

2013: Texas A&M University Newsmaker Image Award

2013: National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section Exploration Award

2013: TAMU Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Teaching Award

2010: National Geographic Magazine cover story on “Bahamas Blue Holes: Deep Dark Secrets” (August issue)

2010: Advance (TAMU Research Magazine) cover story on cave biology research (Fall issue)

2009 Keynote speaker for 1st Anchialine Ecosystems Symposium in Malloca, Spain

2008 Co-organizer for The Crustacean Society Summer Meeting in Galveston

2007 Members of the Advanced Diver Magazine World Exploration Team

2001-03 Anchialine Caves Project co-director for International Biodiversity Observation Year

1994-5 Texas A&M Center for Teaching Excellence Scholar representing the College of Geosciences and Maritime Studies

1994 Phi Beta Delta honor society for international scholars

Namesake for 10 new species (amphipod Cocoharpinia iliffei Karaman 1980, shrimp Typhlatya iliffei Hart & Manning 1981, isopod Stenobermuda iliffei Kensley 1984, polychaete Pelagomacellicephala iliffei Pettibone 1985, ostracod Aponesidea iliffei Maddocks 1986, ciliate Euplotes iliffei Hill & Small 1986, mysid Mysidium iliffei Bacescu 1991, ostracod Dolerocypria iliffei Maddocks 1995, polychaete Branchiomma iliffei Tovar-Hernandez & Knight-Jones 2006 and polychaete Sphaerosyllis iliffei Núñez & Martínez 2009) and 2 new genera (ostracod Iliffeoecia Maddocks 1981 and ostracod Thomontocypris Maddocks 1991) of cavernicolous invertebrates.

Professional Appointments

11/08-Present: Research Associate, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History

9/04-Present Professor, Department of Marine Biology, Texas A&M University. Taught courses in Biospeleology, Introduction to Scientific Diving, Methods in Scientific Diving, Tropical Marine Ecology (TAMU Study Abroad course in Mexico) – the latter 3 courses were offered to both graduates and undergraduates; the Scientific Diving courses were offered with TTVN sections in College Station.

9/97-8/04: Associate Professor, Department of Marine Biology, Texas A&M University at Galveston. Taught course in Introductory Biology, Research Diving and Biospeleology; prepared research publications and proposals.

9/95-8/01: Assistant Department Head, Marine Biology, Texas A&M University at Galveston. Responsible for undergraduate student advising and other administrative duties.

12/91-8/97: Assistant Professor, Department of Marine Biology, Texas A&M University at Galveston.

8/89-12/91: Lecturer, Department of Marine Biology, Texas A&M University at Galveston.

6/77-3/89: Research Associate, Bermuda Biological Station, Ferry Reach, Bermuda. Designed and conducted independent research on the biology of marine caves; salary and research funding solely through grants.

3/84-6/84: Adjunct Professor of Biology, City College of Chicago Overseas Program, U.S. Naval Air Station, Bermuda. Taught course in Introductory Biology.

1/77-6/77: Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Florida Institute of Technology, Jensen Beach, Florida. Taught courses in Introductory Chemistry.

9/72-8/73: Instructor in Oceanography, Florida Institute of Technology, Jensen Beach, Florida. Taught courses in Oceanography and Marine Chemistry.

Graduate Students

Contact Info

Thomas M. Iliffe
Department of Marine Biology
Phone: +1 (409) 740.4454
Fax: +1 (409) 740.5001

Ocean & Coastal Studies Bldg., Office 251

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