A Long-Lost Rare Crayfish Resurfaces in an Alabama Cave

Historically, Shelta Cave was one of the most diverse cave systems in the eastern United States. Long before Niemiller and other scientists arrived, beetles, salamanders, prawns, crayfish, and other animals lived their days in the dark. Often blind and without pigmentation, many species living in caves live longer than their surface-living relatives, thanks to slower metabolisms, a common evolutionary adaptation to underground life. For example, the swamp red crab, the unfortunate star of many Louisiana crayfish boils, can live up to five years in the swamps and ditches they call home. crayfish from the South Shelta Cave, O. australislives up to 22 years, and the river crab in Shelta Cave is believed to have a similar lifespan.

A colony of gray bats also made Shelta Cave their home. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, these adorable, furry “microbats” deposited guano throughout the cave, a valuable food source for many of the cave’s other creatures, including Shelta Cave prawns. . For centuries, the balanced ecosystem of bats, crayfish and other animals in Shelta Cave remained undisturbed.

Then came businessman Henry M. Fuller. In 1888, Fuller bought the cave and named it after his daughter, according to Scott Shaw, who manages the Shelta Cave Nature Reserve. A year later, Fuller built a wooden dance floor and installed some of the city’s first electric lights in the cave, creating a popular entertainment destination. When rainwater rose underground lakes, Fuller even made wooden boat excursions for visitors. Nicknaming the cave “the eighth wonder of the world,” Fuller posted advertisements that boasted, “all the discoveries of the old world pale to the point of being insignificant compared to this greatest spectacle on or under the earth.” “Yeah, it was a big deal,” Shaw says, but it didn’t have to last.

After 1896, Shelta changed hands several times, even becoming a clandestine bar during the Prohibition. In 1967, the National Speleological Society (NSS), an organization that studies and protects caves, bought the cave to preserve its unique ecosystem.

A 30-foot staircase descends to the yawning mouth of Shelta Cave.COURTESY AMATA HINKLE

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