Caving in Northern Alabama

     In May I felt the twinge of wanderlust that sometimes takes over me: I needed to get out into the wilderness, and see things others had not seen. Luckily I received an invite to do just that, even though it was in perhaps the most ordinary place on Earth - Scottsboro, Alabama. It was a place I knew little about, that perhaps few besides its own residents know much about. But this was a wonderful place; home to the southern most stretch of the Appalachians, it looks like something closer to the Smoky Mountains than the bayou. The fog is thick, the mountains tall and verdant, the air a refreshing cool. I was here to go caving and, of course, to look for cavefish.
            Louisiana has caves, but no cavefish - a great disappointment. Alabama has caves, and perhaps an undescribed diversity of cavefishes - a great surprise. I’d fallen in love with caves in Madagascar, where I had first encountered them. I had been wholly unprepared then. Those Malagasy caves, full of strange life – odd birds, angry eels, giant-white-hairy spiders, big snappy crustaceans - was so new and unknown that I thought I was in Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World.’ Madagascar got me hooked on caves for life. When Dr. Matthew Niemiller, one of the world’s preeminent young cave biologists, invited me to “no-where Alabama,” I happily accepted.
A little blind cave crawfish. I did not eat it, but I thought about it.
            Scottsboro is relatively close to Tuscaloosa; home to our LSU football (if not academic rivals) at the University of Alabama. I stopped over to visit their Museum of Natural History on my drive up from Baton Rouge. I found their museum quite beautiful, and their fish collections (in another building) in a much better housing than my own. I was glad to see our rivals on their own turf; and I was quite envious of their collections space and the wonderful Randy Singer, their collections manager, who was showing me around. After that brief visit I continued my drive to northern Alabama. I knew I was in cave country when the thick fog rolled in, I started to see limestone in the rock formations, and my car was pushing the limits climbing steep mountain passes.
            Our target was Limrock Cave, and Dr. Niemiller and colleagues from Auburn joined me near there in Scottsboro. Auburn recently provided their fish curator, Jon Armbruster, with a new building of which I am also extremely envious. (I hope someone out there is getting the hint.) Jon brought along his students Pam Hart and Charles Stephen. I met up with them that first night and was amazed to learn that Charles had not only also went to McGill University like me for undergrad, but also the same tiny Macdonald College campus. He studies pseudoscorpions, of which I know nothing, to his and my great disappointment. These little critters are very cool, especially, like most other things, the cave adapted forms.
            After gearing up and a short hike we were at our target, Limrock Blowing Cave. It was pretty amazing. Rather than the homogenous setting I expected from a North American cave there was quite a lot of habitat diversity, with deep mud in some spots, long windy paths, cool clear water in streams and pools, boulders in collapsed sections (“breakdowns”), narrow passages we could barely squeeze through and great big stalagmite and stalactite chandeliers in large open spaces - and always that utterly complete darkness and silence. Thank goodness for our headlamps and spare batteries. I would occasionally turn off the light and sit quietly just to take in how very dark, cold and quiet it was. The entire cave was nearly 10,000 feet in length, with lots of odd turns, tight crawls, high waters, and cold temperatures to give you enough of a thrill to make you feel like you are on an adventure. But there were also a great many cave animals, wholly unfamiliar to me. We looked for everything, insects, crawfish, spiders, salamanders and fish. We found a great many of these. What we didn’t find are bats; there was plenty of evidence that they were once there in great numbers but they became extirpated due to the scourge of the deadly white-nose syndrome.
Charles in a tight spot.
            Earlier this year Matthew and I described a new species of cavefish from Indiana, that we named Amblyopisis hoosieri, the Hoosier Cavefish. This odd creature garnered us some press because according to some reporters it looks like the human male’s reproductive organ. It is also the first cavefish described from the U.S. in 40 years and its anus is positioned directly behind its head – an odd place even for a fish (some reporters dubbed this a “neck anus”). North America actually has a great many cavefish species, at least compared to the poorly known stygobitic fauna of the rest of the globe. Matthew, on the strength of DNA evidence noted that the cavefish from north of the Ohio River (in Indiana) were quite distinct from those from south of the river (in Kentucky). This evidence set up an easy species description based on morphology of the new Indiana species to distinguish it from the species in Kentucky. It was also pleasing to name a new fish species after the birthplace of American ichthyology. We named the new species, Amblyopsis hoosieri after the “Hoosiers” of Indiana University because the new species is found very close to IU and because David Starr Jordan had once been university president. Jordan is also the most recent common academic ancestor to most, if not all, practicing North American ichthyologists. (He also was a social Darwinist, and may have killed off the founder of Stanford University shortly after he took over as president of that university.) In addition, the first female ichthyologist, Rosa Smith Eigenmann, wife of another noted Indiana ichthyologist, Carl Eigenmann, were also at IU. We named the new Indiana species to make note of the strong influence of IU on American ichthyology. I wanted to collect some of these North American cavefish for the first time so I travelled to Scottsboro, Alabama.
Target organism captured.
            Again we saw a great many cave adapted species from salamanders, to blind pigment-free crawfish, to Charles’s pseudoscorpions, to machete-wielding-Alabama hill people. I wore a double-layered wet suit with kneepads, helmet and lamp and I was sort of prepared for the cold and darkness of the cave, still I was having too much fun to notice any discomfort. We were after Typhlichthys subterraneus, which oddly for a cavefish is found in a rather wide and disjunct distribution. We found only three specimens all within an hour time span of the five hours we were in the cave. Each capture was thrilling. These blind depigmented thumb-sized fish were not hard to capture once you found them: a quick flick of the dip net was enough to bag one. Being blind and not used to predators chasing them, they were basically sitting ducks. I had the privilege of being there when two of them were caught. (I can claim only a single assist when I whiffed after kicking up one cavefish out of the depths with my boots, and which Jon Armbruster deftly captured– he caught all three.) It was a great deal of cold, wet, fun.
            Scientifically, it is unclear the significance of these specimens as of yet and I should say this is a Master’s students project at Auburn. I can say I am hooked again on cavefish and have some interesting Mexican material I can’t wait to tell you about. I’ll save that for another time…..