Regarding underground ecosystems and cave KBAs
By Kyrsten Stringer on November 01, 2022
“Underground habitats are some of the most difficult and dangerous to study and explore; the information we have access to is limited, but critical to understanding cave ecology. Because many subterranean ecosystems are hidden or almost impossible to get to, caves are especially vulnerable to deforestation, urbanization and pollution. Whole habitats and the unique biodiversity they support might be destroyed before we even know they exist.”
- Andrew Snyder
If someone asked you to describe a cave, what are the first three things you might think to say? I’m not much of a gambler, but on this point I don’t think it’s a risk to guess that you might say a cave is: dark, damp, and cool.
If you’re anything like me, then that last word – cool – takes on a double meaning in the context of possible cave descriptors. Because caves are fascinating. In fiction and fantasy, caves are often nightmare fuel where monsters go to hide, and it has been that way for thousands of years. In the epic Beowulf, Grendel’s mother emerges from her underwater cave seeking revenge for the death of her son, and it is in this underground lair wherethe titular hero later travels to kill her. In myth, caves are sometimes the place where gods are born. It was in the Diktaean Cave on the island of Crete, legend says, where Rhea gave birth to Zeus, ruler of the Olympian deities.
Caves are the stuff of story and of legend. They are also places of shelter for slumbering bears and roosting bats; they provide homes for salamander species like the Critically Endangered Cave Splayfoot Salamander, species of subterranean fish and countless arthropods. Caves are like islands in the sense that ecological processes often (but don’t always) occur in isolation from the rest of the wild, which means species that have evolved in caves are uniquely adapted for life underground. This is called troglomorphism. Species with troglomorphic adaptations are called troglobites.
The Blanco Blind Salamander, a species so rare that it has only been documented once, is blind (that might go without saying, given this species’ common name) and lacks any pigmentation in its skin. The Blanco Blind Salamander is literally colorless and unseeing because the species is adapted for life in an aquifer, where light from the sun can not reach.
Read more about the Blanco Blind Salamander on Re:wild’s top 25 most wanted lost species list.
Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) are places that are critical to the persistence of biodiversity, identified through a scientific framework as priorities for the conservation of biodiversity and the overall health of planet Earth. There are KBAs throughout the wild; they occur in deserts and rainforests, in grasslands and mountains, in marshes and coral reefs.
And in caves.
Scientists are still working hard to identify cave KBAs around the world.
“Underground habitats are some of the most difficult and dangerous to study and explore; the information we have access to is limited, but critical to understanding cave ecology,” says Andrew Snyder, Key Biodiversity Area Coordinator for Re:wild. “Because many subterranean ecosystems are hidden or almost impossible to get to, caves are especially vulnerable to deforestation, urbanization and pollution. Whole habitats and the unique biodiversity they support might be destroyed before we even know they exist.”
For the purposes of this article, I want to introduce you to a few of the cave sites that have been recognized as KBAs, and the species that live there.
Baicun and the Wuchuan Frog (China) – Until very recently, the Wuchuan Frog was found in only one place: a limestone cave in Baicun, China, where the frogs are known to favor cliffs near ponds and benefit from slow streams. The Wuchuan Frog has since been recorded in a few additional provinces in China. Their Red List status is currently listed as Vulnerable.
Cave near Hanumanahalli and the Kolar Leaf-nosed Bat (India) – There is a crack in the side of a granite hill in Hanumanhalli, India that is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. It is inside this narrow opening, and only this place, where the Kolar Leaf-nosed Bat makes its home. This species was first described in 1994. Its Red List status is currently Critically Endangered.
Read more about the Kolar Leaf-nosed Bat and its Forgotten Cave
General Davis Cave and the West Virginia Spring Salamander (USA) – Located in the Appalachian Valley, General Davis Cave is the only known habitat of the West Virginia Spring Salamander. While the main entrance to General Davis Cave system is protected, the watershed these salamanders depend on is still threatened by agricultural runoff and industrial development above ground. This salamander’s Red List status is currently Endangered.
Los Mármoles and the Cave Splayfoot Salamander (Mexico) – Endemic to the pine-oak forests of Los Mármoles National Park in Mexico, and the Sierre Madre mountain range, the Cave Splayfoot Salamander is a crevice-dwelling salamander. This species had not been observed for more than 70 years, but was recorded in the wild again in 2010 by Dr. Sean Rovito. The Cave Splayfoot Salamander’s current Red List status is Critically Endangered.
Caves are more than dark, damp and cool. They have been a subject of human fascination for thousands of years. They are biodiverse ecosystems with their own special kind of wild, a wild where species have adapted not just to live underground, but to thrive.
Kyrsten Stringer is an Editiorial Manager for Re:wild specializing in storytelling techniques designed to immerse the reader in the narrative Kyrsten is passionate about breaking down barriers to nature through the power of inclusive language, and about the power of words to galvanize action in conservation — for wildlife and wildlands, for the ocean, and for people everywhere. Her home base is Saskatchewan, Canada.