The Shelta Cave Crayfish: A Crustacean Thought to Be Extinct

The Shelta Cave Crayfish: A Crustacean Thought to Be Extinct

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My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.

Sometimes instead of discovering a new species, scientists rediscover a species that they thought was extinct. One of the most famous rediscovered species is the coelacanth fish, a prehistoric fish that scientists thought died out millions of years ago. In 2019 and 2020, scientists from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) explored Shelta Cave, a cave in the Appalachian Mountains of Huntsville, Alabama. In the cave, they discovered the Shelta Cave crayfish, a crustacean that they thought was extinct for the last 30 years.

The Shelta Cave Crayfish

The Shelta Cave crayfish only lives in Shelta Cave, which is owned and maintained by the National Speleological Society (NSS). This cave is one of the most biodiverse caves in the Appalachian Mountains. The crayfish is translucent white because it lives in a dark environment. Animals that live in subterranean environments tend to be pale in color. 

The crayfish belongs to the genus of Orconectes crayfish, which are cave crayfish that live in the eastern United States and Canada. The crayfish’s species is O. sheltae. Each species of cave crayfish usually only lives in a certain cave system. The Shelta Cave crayfish is critically endangered and small in population compared to the 2 other species of cave crayfish that live in Shelta Cave. 

No one knows the diet of the Shelta Cave crayfish. It’s probably an omnivore, eating organic matter and small crustaceans such as copepods and amphipods

The Shelta Cave Ecosystem

Shelta Cave used to be an underground bar and dance hall in the early 20th century. Now, it’s a nature reserve and a site for scientific study. The cave is 2,500 feet (760 meters) long and has a lake inside of it. Many animal species, particularly crustaceans and amphibians, only live in Shelta Cave. In the early 1970s, the cave ecosystem crashed when a gate was built to keep people out of the cave. The initial design of the gate didn’t allow the bats that lived in the cave to freely enter and exit the cave. Groundwater pollution, the initial gate design, and other factors probably led to the crash of the cave ecosystem. 

The cave is home to a population of gray bats, which are endangered bats that live in the eastern United States. 12 other species of crayfish live in the cave, including 2 cave crayfish species. These other cave crayfish are the southern cave crayfish and the Alabama cave crayfish. The southern cave crayfish is more widespread than the Shelta Cave crayfish, living in both Alabama and Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Alabama cave crayfish only lives in Alabama. 

The Alabama cave shrimp, an endangered shrimp that only lives in Alabama, was also once part of the Shelta Cave ecosystem. A species of endangered amphibian, the Tennessee cave salamander, also once lived in this cave. This salamander only lives in the Appalachian Mountains in the states of Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. These species became locally extinct in Shelta Cave when urbanization above ground caused polluted groundwater to leak into the cave. 

Dr. Matthew L. Niemiller, the assistant professor of biology who led the expedition into Shelta Cave, is conducting the first comprehensive study of groundwater ecosystems in the central and eastern United States. It’s surprising that no one has done this before, but at the same time, it’s also understandable because underground ecosystems are less noticeable and harder to access. 

The Importance of Preserving Cave Ecosystems

Many animals that live only in caves are endangered due to human activities. These animals are often small, fragile, and very susceptible to outside stressors. Preserving cave ecosystems is important not only for the animals that live in them, but also human society as well. Groundwater is important for drinking water, agriculture, and other human needs. Polluted groundwater hurts everyone, not just animals. Life forms that live in groundwater can act as indicators of groundwater ecosystem health. They help purify the water and degrade organic matter in the water. Therefore, it’s important to continue to preserve these hidden ecosystems.

My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.