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Texas blind salamander. Photo: Joe N. Fries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Texas blind salamander. Photo: Joe N. Fries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Natural Selections: exploring cave life

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Curt Stager and Martha Foley do some imaginary spelunking and talk about the peculiar variations of animal life in caves.

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Though he says he’s claustrophobic, Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College said, “From a young age, I was always interested in reading about caves and always wanted to go and see these blind cave salamanders and fish and stuff. The caves I’ve been in have been the wrong kind or not deep enough.”

Stager has spent time in Chimney Mountain Cave in the Adirondacks studying bats. This cave has granite fractures and lacks the stalagmites and stalactites characteristic of limestone caves. According to Stager, the cave is deep. He said, “You get down to the bottom of this and there’s ice on the floor, even in the summer.”

Limestone caves have distinctive formations in them, and they also often have a stream running through them or an underground lake. Both terrestrial and aquatic cave communities can be found. Stager says that the species are separated and identified by the zones that they live in, which are mapped out according to distance from the cave’s entrance, how much light there is and what the temperature is.

“If you go deep enough, you won’t feel the changing temperatures from the seasons,” said Stager. “With that kind of a stable temperature, and being really far from the surface, so you can’t really go out and forage very easily, you’ll get animals that are adapted to that kind of environment.”

Due to lack of light, most cave-dwelling animals are white, pink or clear in color.  There aren’t very many mammals or birds in caves since they often rely on their vision and have higher metabolisms. Stager said, “The largest kinds of things you’d find in a place like that would be some kind of a cave fish or salamanders or crayfish.”

It can be difficult to find food in the caves. “The cave communities are, in a way, connected to the surface world in the sense that the food chain is based on the decay of debris brought in on a spring flood, or if there are bats in there, they’ll come in and there will be bat guano or even bat hairs falling off or mites on their body or whatever,” said Stager.

Organisms that live in caves full time are called troglodytes. They have to have low metabolisms to survive, according to Stager. They also don’t need pigments in their bodies or eyes. Some cave crayfish have eyestalks, but no eyeballs on the ends of the stalks. Instead, they have longer antennae and don’t chase their prey; they methodically locate food via vibrations, smell or touch.

These animals don’t respond to light or to the proximity of humans, but they can be very difficult to catch with nets since they can sense the nets in the water.

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