Hid from extinction: a rare species of crayfish was rediscovered in an American cave

(ORDO NEWS) — For 30 years, a unique cave crayfish, found in a single cave in the southeastern United States of America, was considered extinct. Now this species has been rediscovered, but its future remains uncertain.

In the north of Alabama in the USA is the Shelta Cave , well known for the unique collection of unusual animals that are found there.

In the early 1900s, the cave was used as a bar and dance floor, but since the 1960s it has been declared a nature reserve, and now only scientists can go down there – and even then very rarely.

Southern blind eye ( Typhlichthys subterraneus ), Tennessee cave salamander ( Gyrinophilus palleucus ), Alabama cave crayfish ( Cambarus jonesi ) are just a few species of unusual animals that could be found in the cave half a century ago.

Unfortunately, its unique ecosystem was almost destroyed – and not by careless tourists, but not by particularly careful conservationists who blocked the entrance to the underworld with a gate.

Their intentions were very good: to prevent curious tourists from entering, at the same time allowing a large colony of gray bats ( Myotis grisescens ), as before, to freely leave the cave and return to it.

Unfortunately, the bats did not approve of the initiative: for some reason, they did not like the design of the gate, and soon the animals left the cave, depriving its ecosystem of one of the main sources of food – droppings.

In combination with groundwater pollution due to the development of the land surrounding the cave, this led to a collapse: the unique underground world lost many of its inhabitants.

The unique Sheltean cave crayfish ( Orconectes sheltae ) was also believed to have fallen victim to the ill-fated initiative: only about a hundred crayfish were discovered in the 1960s and 1970s, and this animal was last observed in 1988.

Considering how much the biodiversity of cave life has declined, cavers considered this species extinct. Only in 2019 and 2020, during scientific expeditions, two live crayfish were found.

Hid from extinction a rare species of crayfish was rediscovered in an American cave 2
Dr. Matthew Niemiller in Shelt’s Cave: Thumb-length crayfish are hard to find

The discovery was made during the work on a complete redescription of the life existing in the Shelta cave: unfortunately, the data of the last century may already be outdated.

To catch the crayfish, the scientists had to dive and swim at a depth of five meters: after the animals took tissue samples for DNA analysis, they were released back into the water.

The analysis data was then compared with already known information on other cave crayfish: as a result, it turned out that the initial attribution of this crayfish to the genus Orconectes is most likely erroneous, because the Shelty cave crayfish is the closest relative of the Alabama cave crayfish from the genus Cambarus. As a result, scientists proposed to rename the species Cambarus sheltae .

Now the main task of researchers is how to study this unique animal and propose measures to protect the entire unusual ecosystem of Shelta Cave, in the hope that new rediscoveries of “extinct” species are still waiting for us.


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