Matthew Niemiller was snorkeling in the depths of an Alabama cave when he spotted something scuttling across the floor below him.
It was ghost white with tiny pincers and, he soon realized, it was a creature that hadn’t been seen in 30 years.
“I really wasn’t expecting to find the Shelta Cave crayfish,” Niemiller said of the May 2019 excursion.
“After a couple of decades of no confirmed sightings and the documented dramatic decline of other aquatic cave life at Shelta Cave, it was feared by some, including myself, that the crayfish might now be extinct,” Niemiller, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, said in a university news release.
The last reported sighting of a Shelta Cave crayfish had been in 1988, according to the release documenting the team’s newly published findings.
There is only one place in the world researchers can look for the creatures: A 2,500-foot cave that sits under the National Speleological Society (NSS) in Huntsville, the release said.
The cave’s diverse ecosystem collapsed in the 1970s after a fence was put up to keep people out among other stressors like pollution, the release said. Other creatures once found in the cave, like the Alabama cave shrimp and the Tennessee cave salamander, have yet to be found again in the area.
Even before the ecosystem faltered, the Shelta Cave crayfish was a rare sight, according to the release.
The creature was first formally identified in 1977 by scientist John Cooper, who worked with the NSS. About 115 Shelta Cave crayfish were reported between 1963 and 1975 before the sightings drastically depleted, Niemiller said.
One more crayfish was found in 1988 and any evidence of the creatures then vanished — until May 2019, when Niemiller happened to scoop one up on his team’s snorkeling expedition before releasing the mere inch-long female back to the depths.
The most recent Shelta Cave crayfish sighting was by one of Niemiller’s students in 2020 as the team made their way to the surface, according to the release.
“I had already walked ahead of the area and did not see the crayfish,” Niemiller said. “Thank goodness for young eyes!”
Since research on the crayfish is limited, Niemiller said it is difficult to determine whether the Shelta Cave crayfish only lives in the Shelta Cave, or if it lives in other underground areas that researchers can’t access easily.
The crayfish can serve as good indicators of environmental health, like canaries in a coal mine, Niemiller said, as groundwater quality and urbanization in Huntsville above ground could impact the Shelta Cave ecosystem in the future.
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