4 weeks ago

Discovery of an endangered species in a well-known cave raises questions

You’d think there’d be no way someone could newly discover an endangered species hanging out in Fern Cave in the Paint Rock River valley of Jackson County, so close to Huntsville, home to thousands of spelunkers exploring every cave, nook and cranny.

But Matthew Niemiller and colleagues did.

In a discovery documented in a paper in the journal “Subterranean Biology,” Dr. Niemiller, an assistant professor of biological sciences at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), found a specimen of the Alabama Cave Shrimp Palaemonias alabamae while doing a biological survey of Fern Cave in summer 2018 as part of a team of four.

The endangered shrimp had previously only been discovered in six caves in four cave systems in Madison County.

“Fern Cave is the longest cave in Alabama, with at least 15 miles of mapped passage and five to seven distinct levels,” Dr. Niemiller says. The cave features a 437-foot deep pit and exploring most of its lower levels is reserved only for the very fittest, since the trip involves an arduous journey including drops to be rappelled.

Dr. Niemiller and team’s route to their discovery was no easy feat, either. The team entered the cave’s bottom level via the Davidson Entrance at the base of Nat Mountain on the Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge. The section of Fern Cave is only dry enough for exploration without scuba gear at the height of summer. Otherwise, it takes a dive to explore its flooded passages.

“You go in that entrance, and immediately you are in water up to your chin,” Dr. Niemiller says. From there, the journey twists and turns through tight spots and chambers, and the team sloshed through plenty of water at times.

The biological surveys of Fern Cave are part of a two-year project funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that has involved over 20 biologists, hydrogeologists, and cavers to date from several organizations, including USFWS, UAH, U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy, Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc., Kentucky Geological Survey, Huntsville Grotto and Birmingham Grotto.

The scientists relied on the knowledge and expertise of Steve Pitts who has mapped much of Fern Cave and is its guardian for the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc. “He has visited the cave more than any person alive, more than 450 times. Without Steve, this project wouldn’t be possible,” Niemiller says.

“We went there to look for everything,” Dr. Niemiller says. “It’s the biggest cave in Alabama, but really, we didn’t know much about it from a biological perspective.”

The cave houses the largest winter colony of federally endangered gray bats (Myotis grisescens), and there are other commonly found cave dwellers, like salamanders and millipedes.

“We were working on documenting any life we could see,” Dr. Niemiller says. “We’re looking at the ceiling, in the water and on the floor to see what we could find. We’re looking under rocks and into crevices, as well – every nook and cranny.”

Team members meticulously documented their findings in notebooks and took photos of specimens. In cases where the species was not readily identifiable, they collected voucher specimens for later study.

“We came up on this passage where we could see there was a muddy bank, a place that maybe at other times of the year you didn’t want to be, an area that was clearly underwater for most of the year,” Dr. Niemiller says.

At this spot there were vestigial pools, left when the water receded in the dry summertime. Dr. Niemiller peered into one.

“We are finding cave crayfish, cavefish and sculpin in this pool. Then I looked down and saw this weird thing, this little white crustacean swimming toward me, and I said, ‘That’s a cave shrimp!’”

The team collected a live sample because at the time it was unsure if the specimen was actually the endangered shrimp or possible a new undescribed species. After leaving the cave, Dr. Niemiller called USFWS and got permission to retain the specimen, which is now housed in the Auburn University Museum of Natural History.

But there’s more. The team found three other cave shrimp on that day in August 2018 and observed another two on a return trip in July of this year. The little animals pose some interesting questions for science.

First of all, there’s the Fern Cave location, in the Paint Rock River watershed, which led Niemiller to wonder if the shrimp was an undescribed species. However, the shrimp found at Fern Cave have been morphologically and genetically linked to those found in Madison County, a different watershed area.

“Fern Cave is in a different county and a different location than the other caves where this species has been found,” Dr. Niemiller says. How did the Alabama Cave Shrimp make it there?

Little is known about the shrimp’s ecology. How does it breed, what is its lifespan, how does it survive and what foods does it eat? And why and when did the shrimp lose its eyesight and live in caves?

“Does this species represent something that went underground a million years ago? Two million? Five million?” Dr. Niemiller asks.

What are its closest relatives? “We need to explore the genetics of the species in more detail to find that out.”

Perhaps the most interesting question is, what is the actual range of the shrimp, since it was newly found in a distinct watershed.

“We have to get a better understanding of the distribution of the shrimp,” Dr. Niemiller said. “We’re hoping to get additional funding to survey other sites in Alabama for the presence of the cave shrimp and other cave species of conservation concern.”

After all, perhaps the Alabama Cave Shrimp is doing better than scientists think, even though a population has disappeared in one cave in Huntsville where it was seen in the early 1970s.

Caves in this region of the country are far more extensive than they are amenable to human exploration, and here the tiny shrimp has had scientific impact. Dr. Niemiller’s team has developed a genetic assay that uses the shrimp’s environmental DNA. Shed in the normal course of living, this DNA could be detected in water samples taken from caves and springs by the assay, allowing science to peer into inaccessible areas in search of Palaemonias alabamae.

In northern Alabama and southern Tennessee, cave systems often are so extensive that anyone could be standing atop a habitat for the Alabama Cave Shrimp and not even know it.

“It could be right under your feet,” Dr. Niemiller says. “It could be in a cavity, a well or a cave system underground.”

Tiny cave passages too small to explore link together with underground gravel deposits flowing with water to offer lots of species habitats and opportunity for dispersal, and most of them science as-yet knows nothing about. In this respect, biological cave exploration is much like exploring the deepest recesses of the oceans.

“That’s what draws me to it,” Dr. Niemiller says. “Every cave is different, and differently populated. We’re making many new discoveries.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville)

Episode 30: Bye week recap, college football midterm

A rested DrunkAubie is back from the bye week ready to discuss South Carolina beating Georgia last week and the upcoming matchup with Arkansas.

In this episode, Rodrigo “Hot Rod” Blankenship goes to the eye doctor, Auburn Fans Anonymous and DA takes a college football midterm exam.

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9 hours ago

Black Alabamians should reject Doug Jones in 2020

Last September, just before midnight, Senator Doug Jones grabbed his phone, went on Twitter and in no more than 50 words, told the people of Alabama that he would be voting NO on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.

Immediately, I was overcome with shock and indignation. Yes, more often than not, Senator Jones toes the party line; he votes against President Trump’s positions 84% of the time.

Naively, I assumed that with so much at stake, this time would be different.

Surely, I thought, he would be reminded of Brian Banks, an African-American senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School who had just committed to UCLA before his career was destroyed by a false accusation of sexual assault.

Or maybe, the images of the nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape who collectively spent over 100 years in prison not far from where he grew up would cause him to demand, at the very least, a smidgen of evidence before casting blame.

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As he was pondering his decision, I was supremely certain he would hear the cries of Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley as she wept over the casket of her son, Emmett Till, who was abducted, brutally tormented, shot, folded in barbed wire and then dumped in the Tallahatchie River because he “whistled” at a white woman — a lie she recanted some 50 years later.

Surely, I thought, his years as a federal prosecutor, in which he routinely witnessed lives shattered over false accusations, might reignite his deep and profound respect for the sacred principle that, in our criminal justice system, one is innocent until proven guilty.

With his vote, Senator Jones endorsed a cultural movement which mandates that, even in the absence of evidentiary support, we must #BelieveAllWomen.

While seemingly well-intentioned, this categorical pledge should alarm Black folks in Alabama, as it stands to disproportionately affect us the most. Taking punitive action on the basis of accusation, and not evidence, is a philosophical regression that could awaken one of Jim Crow’s most destructive offspring: a society that values the voices spoken from white tongues over those from black ones.

The National Registry of Exonerations, in a 2017 report examining 1,900 exonerations over the past 30 years, determined that 47% of those exonerated were African-American, despite the fact that we make up only 13% of the U.S. population. In cases involving sexual assault, African-Americans constituted 22% of convictions, but 59% of exonerations. In other words, around half of the time, black men are wrongly convicted of sexual assault.

Realistically, if Kavanaugh is not afforded due process, despite being reared in some of America’s most privileged institutions, what chance do we have?

In a criminal justice system rife with inequalities, the presumption of innocence is often the only thing we can hope for. And Doug Jones’ philosophy — one that assumes guilt when accusations are made — is one that leads to the unjust imprisonment of men who look like me.

All survivors of sexual assault and rape deserve justice, just as the accused deserve one of America’s most potent protections: innocence until proven guilty. It is a cornerstone of American jurisprudence – one that separates us from brutal regimes across the globe and one that must not be relegated to a second-class status.

As election season is upon us and Doug Jones walks the streets of our neighborhoods and preaches to our congregations in the hopes of garnering our vote, remember that politics is more than just handshakes and speeches. Our votes, and the people they go to, have the power to turn ideas into reality.

Let’s vow to utilize that power to keep Jones and his destructive philosophy from creating more miscarriages of justice in our community.

Jalen Drummond is a native of Randolph County and alumnus of the University of Alabama

11 hours ago

Heaven to hell and back again: How faith, Nick Saban helped Tyrone Prothro get his life back

Three weeks. Just three weeks. That was the time between the greatest high of his life and the greatest low.

Today, 14 years later, the memories of two college football Saturdays please him, yet haunt him. From heaven to hell in a span of three weeks, and to this day, both places remain with him.

The greatest catch in the history of college football. A career-ending, gruesome injury just three weeks later: Tyrone Prothro is known worldwide for both, and the lessons he’s learned from the fall of 2005 have shaped the man that he has become.

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Man, was he speedy — a shifty offensive threat at Cleburne County High School, Prothro was listed at 5-foot-9-inches tall.

Most snickered when they saw his height listed as 5’9”, but it didn’t matter, because, in Heflin, Tyrone Protho was a giant — an unstoppable athlete who seemingly scored at will. And, a few years later when his signature football moment arrived on September 10, 2005, the then-Crimson Tide receiver was ready.

It was just before the half, and Bama quarterback Brodie Croyle was looking to send a message to Southern Miss as the home crowd smelled blood. Prothro smelled a big play, and boy, did he deliver.

As Croyle spotted a streaking Prothro down the field, Prothro spotted an opportunity. Up for the football Prothro went, collecting the football along with Southern Miss defensive back Jasper Faulk. As the pair tumbled to the turf, Prothro hung on as Faulk’s helmet was caught between the football and Prothro’s jersey. Tyrone squeezed the football like he had never squeezed a football before as he held onto the ball which was pinned against his opponent’s helmet.

In that moment, “The Catch” was born.

In the weeks that followed, Tyrone Prothro was not only the big man on campus, but rather the biggest story in America. Six months after The Catch, Twitter was born- –and oh, how that play would have gone viral if it had arrived a few months earlier. How big was that play? Prothro found himself in Hollywood the following July accepting the ESPY Award for “Best Play.” An ESPY for the kid from Heflin, Alabama? It was all so surreal.

October 1, 2005, brought to Tuscaloosa one of the biggest football games in recent memory. Three Saturdays after “The Catch,” Prothro was enjoying a performance for the ages. A first quarter 87-yard touchdown catch from Brodie Croyle? Why not? Prothro and crew led the Gators 7-0. Fast forward to the third quarter: Another Prothro TD catch from 16 yards and the Crimson Tide led 31-3. He believed that his life-changing season would continue.

Prothro’s life would indeed change, but it was not the change that he expected.

Late in the Florida game, Prothro went high into the air as he attempted to make another one of his circus catches. This time, as he landed awkwardly, his dream of playing in the NFL would be over. Prothro’s left leg snapped in half. A hush fell over the crowd as never before had Bama fans witnessed such horror, such sadness, such empathy. Through his pain, Prothro managed a thumbs up as he was carted off the field.

Yet just like that, football had left his life.

“Now what?” he asked himself. After all, Prothro had big dreams — but instead of preparing for the NFL Draft, Prothro found himself preparing for surgery.

And then another. And then another.

Prothro underwent a total of 12 surgeries, as he wasn’t concerned with playing football again, but rather walking again. And at the moment when Prothro felt as if all was lost in his life? In the midst of him questioning God?

More confusion arose, as that Alabama coaching carousel had his mind spinning: Dennis Franchione. Mike Price. Mike Shula. Joe Kines. Nick Saban. What in the world was happening in Tuscaloosa?

His football career was over — yet as his mind strained, his competitiveness kicked in: Tyrone Prothro continued working toward his degree.

The problem?

Focusing on his studies was not his strong suit. And as he looks back today, Prothro told the Huts And Nuts podcast that it was a man named Nick Saban who came to his rescue. Yes, the same coach for whom Prothro never played, the same coach who was forced to officially take Prothro off the Bama roster on August 3, 2007.

Said Prothro on the podcast, “My grades were falling and I was in the dumps. I had a meeting with Coach Saban and he told me that the best thing I could do was to get my degree. He then chewed me out in a second meeting and he helped me realize that it was the best thing I could do for myself.”

In August 2008, Tyrone Prothro graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in Human Environmental Sciences.

It’s been 14 years since Prothro felt elation, 14 years since he felt despair. Yet today, he is a happy camper.

At the time of this writing, Prothro and his wife, Sidnie, were expecting the arrival of daughter Laila — she will enter the world as brother London welcomes her with open arms.

After taking a few days off, Prothro will head back to work as an offensive assistant coach with the Jasper High School football team.

Prothro advised, “If I can help one of these kids through my story, I feel it’s why I’m here. I’m going to help as many kids as I can.”

And of his shattered dream of playing in the NFL?

“I was projected to be a first-round pick. I’m not one to sit back and dwell on what wasn’t. All I can do is move forward and work like the next man, taking care of my family.”

Years after feeling an ultimate high and a heartbreaking low, the Alabama football family feels for Tyrone Prothro, as Bama fans are proud of how one of their own has handled adversity.

Prothro’s football life may not have been completed, but thanks to family, faith and a drive possessed by few others, he is now content.

“You just have to take the bull by the horns and keep plugging along. It will be then that it will all pay off,” he explained

Wise words indeed from a “Hero of the Game” and a man who will never forget those three weeks in 2005.

Listen to the full interview:

Rick Karle is a 24-time Emmy winning broadcaster and a special sports contributor to Yellowhammer News. He is also the host of the Huts and Nuts podcast.

11 hours ago

Governor Ivey may go at the prison issue mostly alone

Much like last year with the gas tax, legislators know that the issue of prisons is looming, and they are trying to get out ahead of it.

And like the gas tax play, it appears a special session during the 2020 regular session will be used.

We have been hearing for a while now that Governor Kay Ivey will consider calling for a special session to address this problem and State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), now a candidate for the Alabama state Supreme Court, confirmed as much during an appearance on WVNN’s “The Dale Jackson Show” Wednesday.

In addition, Ward called for legislators to take an outside the box approach to the issue.

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Ward said the issue is significantly more complex than it has been made out to be, saying, “First of all, everyone wants one bill, one solution, and these aren’t one bill one solution issues.”

He warned that mass release was not going to be a solution, making it clear that would be a risk to “public safety.”

Ward added, “I think the bulk of any kind of prison reform is gonna be rehabilitation and alternative programming,” and suggested that outside the box approaches, such as drug rehabilitation programs, mental health initiatives and veterans courts, are the most effective means to solve the overarching problem of overpopulation.

Can this be done without massive sentencing reform? Ward says he thinks so.

“You can do this and in a way that everybody, everybody wants to be Conservative about it, but two, it can be solved in a way that doesn’t require a lot of new sentencing changes,” he advised.

There will still probably be a building of new prison capacity and that will likely be done by Kay Ivey and Kay Ivey alone.

He explained why the governor’s office could make a unilateral move, saying, “The reason they can do it without us is because they don’t need additional revenue.”

My takeaway:

How that plays out remains to be seen. Ward is right: This issue is not one that is going to be solved with one bill. It is complex and evolving and needs to be looked at from multiple angles.

The legislature will be absolutely thrilled to have the governor’s office handle a bulk of this issue on her own.

They won’t have to deal with voting to spend money on prison instead of schools, kids, healthcare, public safety and whatever other issues you care about.

She takes the heat, the prisons get built, they pass some slight reform laws and the issue goes away.

While I still think there are going to be some fights on this issue come next year, this is, for now, the best plan being suggested.

Listen here:

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN

12 hours ago

Mo Brooks introduces resolution demanding impeachment work available to public

Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) introduced a House resolution Wednesday requiring impeachment related hearings, witness interviews and communications, document production and examinations, proceedings and other work be done in an open setting for public view.

“House Democrats are conducting a hyper-partisan impeachment effort in the Capitol basement that even members of Congress are barred from attending,” Brooks said in a news release. “As such, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s so-called ‘Impeachment Inquiry’ is a sham process that both violates House rules and violates even the most fundamental rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

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“An impeachment inquiry that is secretive, violates both the Constitution and past precedent, and excludes Congressmen and the American people is illegitimate at best and a political charade and sham at worst,” he continued. “For emphasis, and most egregiously, Democrats are excluding the American people from the entire process.”

“The American people deserve the right to witness this impeachment process and hear unfiltered witness testimony, but Democrats instead adamantly seek to deny the American people the ability to judge the merits of impeachment efforts based solely on firsthand information, not gossip and hearsay,” Brooks added. “The veil of secrecy must be lifted and the selective leaking of deceptive testimony without context must end.”

Brooks then included a statement on “informed citizenry,” questioning why the Democrats are “opposed” to it.

“I’ve introduced a simple House resolution that demands that all impeachment related hearings, witness interviews and communications, document production and examinations, proceedings, and other related work be done in an open setting in public view,” Brooks said.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand how Democrats can possibly be opposed to open government and a more informed citizenry that gets real evidence firsthand rather than the illegally leaked gossip so readily parroted and aired by a complicit and partisan Fake News Media.”

Original cosponsors for the resolution include the following:

Congressman Matt Gaetz (FL-01), Congressman Scott Perry (PA-10), Congressman Mark Meadows (NC-11), Congressman Brian Babin (TX-36), Congressman Tom McClintock (CA-04), Congressman David Schweikert (AZ-06), Congressman Andy Biggs (AZ-05), Congressman Alexander X. Mooney (WV-02), Congressman Warren Davidson (OH-08), Congressman Louie Gohmert (TX-01), Congressman Morgan Griffith (VA-09), Congressman Ted S. Yoho (FL-03), Congressman Chip Roy (TX-21), Congressman Bill Posey (FL-08), Congressman Andy Harris (MD-01), Congressman Jody Hice (GA-10), Congressman Paul Gosar (AZ-04), Congressman Michael Cloud (TX-27) and Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01).

Kyle Morris also contributes daily to Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @RealKyleMorris.