2 years 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)

8 hours ago

Tuberville celebrates public charter schools — ‘Look forward to their continued success’

U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) this week co-sponsored a resolution honoring the 22nd annual National Charter Schools Week, which ends this Saturday.

The resolution was bipartisan and introduced by U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC).

“After spending 40 years recruiting students from high schools all over the country, I know the difference a quality education can make in a young person’s life. I’ve seen public charter schools give parents a valuable option for students in Alabama and across the country,” said Tuberville in a statement.

“Charter schools give educators more flexibility to teach in ways that best fit students’ unique needs, and studies show charter schools help close the achievement gap for our most at-risk students,” he concluded. “I’m grateful for the educators and administrators who have helped make charter schools available to students and parents, and look forward to their continued success in educating America’s next generation of leaders.”

157

Nationally, 44 states — including Alabama — and the District of Columbia have public charter schools, with more than 7,500 schools serving approximately 3.3 million students.

Scott’s resolution congratulates “the students, parents, teachers, and leaders of charter schools across the United States for making ongoing contributions to education.”

The resolution notes that “high-performing public charter schools deliver a high-quality public education and challenge all students to reach their potential for academic success.”

“[P]ublic charter schools promote innovation and excellence in public education,” it continues. “[P]ublic charter schools throughout the United States provide millions of families with diverse and innovative educational options for the children of those families.”

The resolutions especially praises public charter schools for “making impressive strides in closing the academic achievement gap in schools in the United States, particularly in schools with some of the most disadvantaged students in both rural and urban communities.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

12 hours ago

State Rep. Stringer ousted from Mobile County Sheriff’s Office over ‘difference of opinion’ with sheriff; Blames pro-Second Amendment stance for removal

On Friday, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office announced State Rep. Shane Stringer (R-Citronelle) was no longer serving as a captain for the department.

According to Mobile County Sheriff Office spokeswoman, Stringer was dismissed for his support of so-called constitutional carry, and Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran had a “difference of opinion” with the Mobile County Republican legislator.

Shortly after those reports surfaced, Stringer responded with his own press statement declaring himself “proud to stand in defense of the Second Amendment.”

330

“The Second Amendment gun rights of Alabamians are under attack from a liberal federal government that is out of control and even from some factions right here at home,” Stringer said in a release. “After dedicating my life and career to law enforcement, losing a job because I stand in support of Alabama gun owners is certainly surprising, but nothing will discourage me from defending the constitutional guarantees promised to all of us as American citizens.”

Also, according to the release, Cochran notified Stringer, who served as the Satsuma Police Chief before winning his election in 2018 to serve in the State House, on Wednesday of his dismissal from the captain’s post in the department “because he is sponsoring ‘constitutional carry’ gun rights legislation.

HB618 would allow Alabamians to carry or conceal a pistol without first obtaining a permit from their local sheriff’s office, an effort that the state’s sheriffs have vociferously opposed in the past.

“The U.S. Constitution does not say you have a right to keep and bear arms as long as you pay what amounts to a gun tax in the form of permit fees,” Stringer said in the release. “It says you have the right to keep and carry firearms. . .period.”

“As a state legislator, I swore an oath to God that I would support the U.S. Constitution, and this legislation does just that,” he added. “And whether or not I am employed by the Mobile Sheriff’s Office, my heart and soul will always belong to the mission of enforcing the law and to my fellow officers who seek to protect the men, women, and children of Alabama.”

The bill has 11 other co-sponsors, including State Rep. Proncey Robertson (R-Mount Hope), who served as an officer in the Decatur Police Department.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

16 hours ago

Report: Environmental activists team up with socialists, sex workers in Birmingham

According to a report published Thursday, left-wing Birmingham environmental group GASP is moving to support socialism and sex work in the Magic City.

Alabama Today reported that a rally is being planned in Birmingham to support sex workers, including prostitutes.

The first speaker listed for the event is reportedly GASP’s Nina Morgan, and the organization itself is set to have a table at the event alongside the local “Party for Socialism and Liberation.”

“Stated in their latest Facebook post is, ‘Without the economic, political, military and diplomatic backing of U.S. imperialism, the state of Israel would not last long,'” Alabama Today noted.

154

Morgan is listed as GASP’s “Climate & Environmental Justice Organizer.”

“She became radicalized first and foremost by her parents, who were divorced but often had conversations with her and her twin brother about the social ills of the world. Further, her political analysis emerged during her time serving on the youth council of a reproductive justice initiative called the Alabama Alliance for Healthy Youth,” GASP’s website advises.

The event, scheduled for June 6, is billed as an “International Sex Workers’ Day Rally.”

Per the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) website, the day is an annual event. One of the organization’s core values is, “Opposition to all forms of criminalization and other legal oppression of sex work.”

A flier promoting the event shows a police car in flames, smushed by a stiletto.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

17 hours ago

7 Things: Biden says you have his permission to take off your mask, special session may be needed, Democratic state representatives want Huntsville’s police chief fired and more …

7. 150 Republicans emerge and embarrass themselves again 

  • Since the first day Donald Trump came down the escalator, the American media and their Democrats touted the “courageous Republicans” who would abandon the party over the former president. With U.S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) losing her leadership post, those same people are leaving the party again, for real this time.
  • The “Call for American Renewal” is an uncompelling list of the usually gripers and grifters, CNN and MSNBC contributors and Lincoln Project hacks. This includes independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, former Trump staffer Anthony Scaramucci, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Richard Painter, columnist Max Boot and a “Who’s who or who’s that?” of American politics.

6. White House: We have to teach about systematic racism

755

  • White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to some who have said that teaching critical race theory is “liberal indoctrination,” saying that they don’t “think we believe that educating the youth, next leaders of the future, leaders of the country, on systemic racism is indoctrination.”
  • Psaki went on to say that teaching about systemic racism is “actually responsible.” This comes after U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced the Ivory Tower Act to tax the endowments of colleges and universities to put more money toward training in trades. Cotton said that these establishments are making money while “indoctrinating our youth with un-American ideas.”

5. Ivey makes it clear that Alabama stands with Israel

  • Governor Kay Ivey clearly stated that Alabama is standing with Israel as they face attacks from the terrorist organization Hamas in Gaza. There has been some speculation from UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland that if conflict continues or gets worse, it could result in “a full-scale war.”
  • Alabama has a strong business relationship with Israel, with exports totaling $49 million in 2020, which was 27% higher than the state’s exports to Israel in 2019. Ivey spokesperson Gina Maiola said, “[I]it is appropriate with Alabama’s longstanding relationship with Israel that she reaffirmed our position as an ally and friend. As Governor Kay Ivey said this morning, Alabama stands with Israel.”

4. Group calling for Huntsville PD chief to be fired or forced to resign

  • Due to the comments made by Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray after officer William Ben Darby was convicted of murder, the Rosa Parks Day Committee in Huntsville is calling for Mayor Tommy Battle to fire McMurray.
  • State House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) and State Representative Laura Hall (D-Huntsville) were present with the committee at a press conference where they made these requests. They claimed that McMurray should be removed due to his comments on Darby and the handling of the protests downtown in 2020.

 3. Special session likely needed for issues like prisons and gambling

  • State Senator Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville) said it’s likely a special session will be necessary to deal with issues like prisons and gambling since there’s only one more day left in the regular session and it’s unlikely that these issues will be resolved in that short time.
  • Chambliss said that Governor Kay Ivey should at least call “a five-day short special session to make it work.” He added that a special session to deal with building more prisons in the state is even more necessary as there have been funding concerns and the state still faces an order from the U.S. Department of Justice to fix unconstitutional conditions. Chambliss went on to say that if the issue isn’t addressed, he thinks “the DOJ is going to be very serious about their next steps.”

2. Biden thinks he did something on masks

  • New guidelines have been released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on when vaccinated people should wear a mask by saying that they don’t need to wear a mask “in any setting” and you can “resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.” The U.S. House, some cities (including Birmingham), states, and many businesses will keep the masks for now.
  • President Joe Biden hilariously tweeted some authoritarian nonsense, stating, “The rule is now simple: get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do.” Governor Kay Ivey praised the decision to lift masks, despite only lifting the statewide mask mandate in Alabama about a month ago. She said, “Finally, we are seeing some encouraging, common sense guidance from the CDC.”

1. Now schools should be open, too

  • After months of resistance to reopening schools, a teachers union is now deciding that schools must reopen in the fall. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers said, “There is no doubt: Schools must be open,” adding, “Given current circumstances, nothing should stand in the way of fully reopening our public schools this fall and keeping them open.” Weingarten also said, “The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in.”
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci is calling for the schools to open up all the way, telling CNN, “I believe the schools should be open five days, full blast, just the way it was before,” and he wants it done “by the time we get to the fall.”

19 hours ago

Huntsville-based Torch Technologies awarded $722M U.S. Army contract

Huntsville-headquartered Torch Technologies this week announced a $722 million contract award from the federal government.

The task order comes via U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Aviation and Missile Center (AvMC) Systems Simulation Software and Integration Directorate (S3I) for Modeling and Simulation (M&S) Aviation and Missile Systems. The order has a five-year period of performance and will be executed primarily in the Rocket City.

According to a press release, the Torch team will develop and apply models and simulations to aviation and missile system analysis ensuring warfighter readiness and future capabilities are realized.

117

Torch will reportedly supply cost-effective solutions that facilitate readiness and technological dominance of the Army’s current and future force.

“Torch is pleased to continue our long-standing relationship with the DEVCOM AvMC S3I M&S customers,” stated Torch president and CEO John Watson. “We are proud to be a part of their important mission to provide weapons development and modernization support to our warfighters.”

A 100% employee-owned business with more than 900 global employees dedicated to quality technical services, competitive costs and ethical business practices, Torch also has an Alabama presence at Fort Rucker in the Wiregrass. In 2019, Torch annual revenues were approximately $513 million.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn