Conservation Of Cave Life

The fantastic adaptations displayed by obligate cave animals have long intrigued biologists. Their often narrow environmental tolerances, coupled with their island-like habitats, have reinforced the view that these animals are fragile, lead an endangered existence, and are in need of conservation. However, development of conservation programs is hampered by a severe lack of data about the species present and their status. Discoveries in the past few decades of cave ecosystems in a variety of cavernous rocks in diverse regions have revolutionized our understanding of cave life. We now believe that cave colonization and adaptation are general phenomena and occur wherever there are suitable underground voids available for evolutionary time. Most cave species remain undiscovered; in fact, the cave faunas of large areas containing caves, especially in the tropics, remain unsurveyed and unknown. Unfortunately, many cave systems are being destroyed before their faunas become known. The major anthropogenic threats to cave faunas include (1) mining of the surrounding rock, (2) changes in land use over subterranean habitats such as deforestation and urbanization, (3) alteration of groundwater flow patterns, (4) waste disposal and pollution, (5) invasion by nonindigenous species, (6) disruption of food inputs, and (7) direct human disturbance during visitation. Biological surveys are urgently needed. Also, recent systematic studies reveal that cave arthropod faunas are far more diverse than previously thought, indicating that priority should be focused on recognizing and protecting each distinct population rather than protecting a single population of each conventional species.

Conservation efforts must mitigate threats affecting the system, as well as recognize emerging threats. Generally, species extinctions result from novel perturbations, e.g., new stresses with which a species has had little experience during its evolution. Ecological studies are needed that improve our understanding of the functioning ecosystem, as well as understanding of natural successional processes. However, experimental ecological studies in caves are problematic because in few other habitats are humans so dramatically intruders as in caves. Not only do researchers affect the environment of the passages they study, but also they cannot sample the medium-sized voids where the major activity usually occurs. Caves are a fragile window through which we can see and study the fauna living within cavernous rock. Protected areas must include a sustainable portion of the ecosystem as well as suitable source areas for food and water resources. This usually represents an area larger than the footprint of the known cave.

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