FISH WE RARELY SEE NEVER SEES US
September 13, 2009
I was recently
asked if any cave fish live in the Southeast. The following column, which
first appeared 10 years ago, answers the question.
a fish!" That seemingly innocuous declaration was the most exciting
statement I had heard in months. A few minutes after this announcement
was made, I was sitting in mud and water, and I was enveloped by darkness
blacker than the deepest night. My companions and I were alone in the
inky blackness; out of touch with the rest of the world--no phone, no
radio, no other means of communication. We were having a great time. All
this fun came from being an ecologist in search of hidden treasure in
Huck found gold; what we found was equally exciting to us. Kurt Buhlmann
of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory had just sighted and was about
to catch the first southern cavefish discovered in Georgia in decades.
In this particular cave in northern Georgia, a group of spelunkers, or
cave explorers, had caught the first, and until now the last, of these
little white fish in 1969.
live beneath the earth in parts of the United States and the world, but
due to their unusual lifestyle in waters of perpetual darkness, few scientists
ever see them. Perhaps they are more common than we think, for our interface
with cavefish habitat is superficial. We can find them only at the limited
points at which underground lakes and rivers can be reached through caves,
our only windows to an environment no one has ever seen in its entirety.
But as this is the only place to look, that's what some spelunkers do.
spend years in search of rare cavefish. When we found this one, we had
been peering into the crystal clear edges of an underground river, looking
for life. We had been underground for an hour and had come to the end
of a winding, narrow tunnel of water, hundreds of feet from the entrance.
was moving slightly, enough to change the muddy cloud left by our feet
back to bathtub clear in a couple of minutes. I noted this with mild alarm,
as it was raining hard outside. Wouldn't that mean the water was rising?
Now, seasoned spelunkers like these guys I was with would probably say
the water was rising imperceptibly. But I was remembering a narrow squeeze
I had, with my face just above the water's surface, to get to the spot
where we were. I also noticed that a little line I had drawn a few inches
from the water's edge 10 minutes earlier was now submerged.
water or not, I was not about to leave now. For I was sitting at the edge
of a deep pool as we watched a southern cavefish flit around a series
of tunnels on the far side. Kurt was up to his neck in the water, holding
a small dip net, waiting for the fish to move closer. We had tried coaxing
it toward us by several means, such as wiggling fingers in the water,
turning all lights off for five minutes (an experience bordering on eerie),
and talking to the fish the way I do to my dog.
paid about as much attention to us as my dog does to me when I explain
things to him. Our idea of cutting the lights off was futile, as we soon
learned. Cavefish, it turns out, are blind. And by that, I don't mean
they have small eyes with poor vision. They have no eyes. Wiggling our
fingers didn't work either, but at least this kept us occupied (although
that submerged mark in the mud did come to my mind from time to time).
But a cavefish
was worth waiting for, and after 30 minutes, Kurt was able to net the
fish and get a closer look at this biological treasure. Along with uncovering
a biological mystery about a plant or animal, finding a rare species is
one of the most stimulating field experiences a naturalist can have.
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