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TN Press: Caves protect rare salamanders

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Thu Nov 4 11:46:23 2010  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

TENNESSEE JOURNALIST (U of Tennessee, Knoxville) 25 October 10 Closing caves protects rare salamanders (Charli Kerns)
The small green ferns quiver where the cave's cold breath meets and mingles with the humid summer air. Water trickles down, disappearing into a darkness that pulses faintly with little bits of life: some bats hanging overhead, a couple bugs scuttling across a rock, and, every now and then, a few purple dots.
Those dots belong to the berry cave salamander, for which it is aptly named, a rare salamander that finds its home in only a few caves in Knoxville, Tenn. Those caves are located in an abandoned quarry called the Georgia Marble Quarry. The locals call it Meads Quarry. The Legacy Parks Foundation donated the former marble and limestone quarry to the city of Knoxville in 2007 and it is now under the management of Ijams Nature Center.
At first, visitors at Ijams Nature Center were welcome to explore the quarry and its caves, but when the berry cave salamander was discovered, the administration of Ijams decided to shut down the caves in order to protect the delicate ecosystem.
Led by a team from the Nature Conservancy as well as cave-gate expert Roy Powers, Ijams was able to build metal gates at three cave entrances. The Cave Landowner Incentive Program funded most of the operation. The gates are lockable structures that allow authorized people to enter as well as let bats fly in and out easily.
Among those allowed to enter the caves are Ijams employees and researchers, including UT professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Ben Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick and his team have been studying the berry cave salamander for the last few years, trying to understand a creature so little is known about.
Most land salamanders go through a transition much like frogs. They have an aquatic larvae or tadpole stage and then metamorphose into a predominantly land or adult stage.
"One distinctive feature of the berry cave salamander is that, unlike most land salamanders, this cave specialist does not undergo metamorphosis," says Fitzpatrick.
It remains aquatic its entire life.
Fitzpatrick also adds that, like most cave specialists, the berry cave salamander has a low energy use.
"Caves receive no direct energy from the sun and so that means the energy levels of caves are very low," says Fitzpatrick. "This environment is where animals have low energy use, meaning that they reproduce very slowly, have low population density, and take a long time to find food."
Protecting the salamanders' habitat is critical. A cave is essentially an environmental vacuum where very little of the outside world can flush away debris, as it can through wind or rain on open ground. The cave setting requires a long time to recover from disturbances.Basically, if you pee in the cave, that pee is going to be there a while. Ben Nanny, Ijams Assistant Park Manager
"Basically, if you pee in the cave, that pee is going to be there a while," says Ben Nanny, the assistant part manager at Ijams Nature Center.
Urine has not been the biggest disturbance to the caves, either. Before the team gated the caves, they cleared out all unnatural contents they could find, which included plastic jugs, beer cans, old rusted metals, a couple dozen tires, and even an abandoned car near one entrance.
Though gating off the caves has helped, Nanny said that vandalism is still a problem. The Endangered Species Act, which would make any disturbance a federal crime, does not yet protect the berry cave salamander. Implemented by the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service, the act requires that both research and environmental recovery must take place.
Right now, the berry cave salamander is in what Fitzpatrick referred to as "endangered limbo." If the salamander is put on the Endangered Species list, Ijams will have more power to protect the caves, and the research team at UT will be able to conduct much more needed research on the creature and its environment.
"The caves at Meads Quarry hold the highest number of berry cave salamanders of anywhere in the area, which also means anywhere in the world," Fitzpatrick said. "If you asked me which cave system above all the others to save, I'd have to say Meads."
Closing caves protects rare salamanders


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  • You Are HereTN Press: Caves protect rare salamanders - W von Papinešu, Thu Nov 4 11:46:23 2010

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