SciSun: Small but Mighty   Leave a comment

There are many different kinds of animals on Earth – almost two million species have been recorded, and it’s estimated there are millions more that we don’t even know about yet! Of all those millions, a very small number – only about 60,000 are vertebrates – animals with a skeleton like fish and frogs and birds and reptiles and lions and horses and people; and of those, just 5,000 or so are mammals – animals like dogs, and cats, and pandas, and YOU! These are the animals that we all know and usually think about as being an ‘animal’ – but there are many, many more species that are invertebrates – animals like insects and worms and snails. In fact, scientists have found about a million and a half (1,500,000) species of invertebrates – and it’s estimated there are millions more that haven’t been discovered. It’s believed invertebrates do much of the work (like pollinating plants, and cleaning waste, and keeping the soil maintained) that keeps every environment, and the entire world, running smoothly. And much of their work is done in places we wouldn’t want to live – like mounds of rotting plants (and other, um, stuff), and under slimy rocks and dead trees, and deep in caves with no light or clean air. All this, and they don’t even get the weekend off.

So it’s important every species – even the little guys you might step over without even knowing it – have a chance to do the work they’ve done for thousands or even millions of years. But as more and more people live on the Earth, some of the environments that were perfect for these specialized invertebrates are being destroyed or changed to make room for people. Recently, in Bexar County of Southern Texas, entire caves, and the little invertebrate animals that live in them, are in danger of being lost due to urban sprawl. Most people have never seen, and didn’t even realize, the unique animals that live in these caves – like the Robber Baron Cave Harvestman (Texella cokendolpheri); and Vesper Cave Spider (Cicurina vespera); and Comal Springs Riffle Beetle (Heterelmis comalensis). These species have lived in the dark caves for so many thousands of years, they have lost their need for eyes, and have no or very insignificant color to their bodies, and are specialized to eat and live in a very harsh, and to most other animals, strange environment that no human can understand. Even scientists who study the caves don’t even know what some of these animals eat, or how they survive! And these are just some of the specialized species, from one area of caves, in one part of the United States!

As changes come to the cave area – greater activity, or different types of animals, or more or less moisture – the entire area, both inside and outside the cave, is affected, which could lead to loss of the entire environment. But thankfully, a recent law has set aside 4,200 acres of cave-habitat that will protect the species and their environment. This is almost four-times the area that was originally considered, and sets aside many specific places that were in danger, and the surrounding land. So the beetles and spiders and other invertebrates can ‘enjoy’ many more years of working in stinky darkness.

Just so you know, Bexar County is pronounced B-E-A-R County. But there are no bears in the caves. Maybe no one liked the name Riffle Beetle County.

Comal springs riffle beetle USFWS

“It's good I'm not afraid of heights. This '5' thing must be like an inch tall!"

Get out of the dark and learn more about cave life:

http://www.nps.gov/grba/naturescience/cave-life.htm

http://museumca.org/caves/onli_cave_life.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/caves/

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