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A new species

Biologist shares news of summer find in area cave

January 26, 2008
There are rare critters underneath the ground.

Cavers and a scientist who collaborated in researching two caves in the region unveiled some unique creatures they found last summer, at Friday night’s meeting of the Greater Nippenose Valley Watershed Association.

Dave Hollick, a caver with the Bald Eagle Grotto, a chapter of the National Speleological Society, told the audience of about 100 people at the Nippenose Valley Elementary School that in two caves in the valley, a previously unidentified cave-dwelling fish had been identified in 2003 by Luis Espinasa, an associate professor of biology at Marist College after cavers saw a fish with which they were unfamiliar.

The fish, he said, effectively stopped a proposed hog farm operation.

This past summer, he said Espinasa was invited back to the same caves, where he and his students collected samples and found even more unique creatures, known to exist nowhere else in the world.

He had invited Espinasa on a caving expedition in 1996, but at the time, nobody was prepared to collect samples of the fish.

“Then in 1999,we were doing some surveys and we saw hundreds of these fish,” Hollick said.

Those fish, known as troglomorphic sculpins, had a unique DNA pool, which Espinasa discovered after he got samples to a laboratory.

“You never know what is going to happen and that is the story of what we are doing here.”

“All that water sinks into the caves from the 13 streams that come into this valley,” he said. “All of that is unfiltrated, so if you were to have all that hog poop going in, the water you drink out of a spring, would have hog poop in it.”

Last summer Espinasa and the students returned.

“We collected everything that moved,” Espinasa told the crowd, which included biology professors and other watershed association members.

What they found astounded them. All told and including the fish, Espinasa has been able to identify nine species of aquatic creatures, including one species of aquatic worm and four crustaceans, as unique to that underground ecosystem. All of the creatures can only survive underground and have never been located outside the Nippenose Valley.

Espinasa and the cavers were able to reach previously unexplored sections of the caves, known as Eiswerth No. 1 Cave and Loose Tooth Cave, because water that normally flooded them was low, thanks to the drought conditions.

“We also found some crawdads in the cave we have to do more study on,” Espinasa said.

“The Nippenose Valley has a unique biological community. In two trips we have found nine species the are adapted to living in caves. This valley has the potential of being one of the most important karstic (limestone) areas in the Northeastern United States.”

Finding the fish in 2003 was the single biggest discovery, because it turned out to be the northernmost cave-dwelling fish in the world and was found to be very different, genetically, from similar-looking fish found in nearby Antes Creek on the surface.

“These sculpins were more closely related to sculpins in Russia,” he said of their genetic footprint. “That gets biologists excited.”

Now, he said, it is up to the residents of the Nippenose Valley to take good care of that unique environment, along with their own water supply.

“The residents should realize that they are the custodians of something amazing —a wonderful fish and these other species,” Espinasa said.

“Anything you flush into the ground will affect theses species. One big gasoline or chemical spill could in one event finish everything. Fertilizers should be used responsibly.”

He also said there are salamanders around the caves that may be unique as well, but more study is needed. He asked residents to watch for the salamander, a photo of which he showed.

Espinasa is likely to return and maybe more unique creatures may be found.

Article Photos

ERIC LONG/Sun-Gazette
Marist College associate biology professor Luis Espinasa displays pictures of the unique cave-dwelling fish of Nippenose Valley.



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