Discovering two new cave-dwelling species before lunch

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I'm in the north of Guangxi in southern China feeling privileged to be working in such a dramatic karst limestone landscape and part of another great project team. The conical and vertical towers of limestone jut out of the flat agricultural land, sometimes in single sentinels and sometimes in great families of jagged, pointed peaks, no two alike. At Mulun National Nature Reserve which abuts the Maolan World Heritage Site in Guizhou, there is nothing but these towers, and this is one of the sites getting detailed attention within our Integrated Forestry and Conservation Development Project. One sub-component of the project is directed at cave biodiversity. In that regard, we recently made some remarkable discoveries at Mulun.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, cave biodiversity gets appallingly little attention relative to its significance. It is surely the most unknown of the terrestrial ecosystems, and it makes me drool to be close to places for which so little biological information is available.

I have discovered new species of snails during 'biobreaks' on long journeys – and it pains me to see karst areas being blown apart for lime, cement, hardcore, etc., before their biological riches are documented. To be sure, only the bats are furry, but even this doesn’t make most people rate them as cute or worthy of attention. The biological interest is in the invertebrates.

ImageThe project is led on the Bank side by Liu Jin who is based in our Beijing office, a professional forester whose role in the design of the project here was recognized by the naming of a rather beautiful Mulun snail after her (see picture at right) in Basteria by Wim Maassen in 2008.

In that earlier blog post, I mentioned that the cave fauna surveys in Mulun in 2007 led by Professor Louis Deharveng of the Paris Natural History Museum had found all manner of small creatures, about 90 percent of them new to science. On this supervision mission, our counterparts took us in early morning to the southwest corner of Mulun to: a) allow consultations with a poor community in Hong Dong Village, which is now benefiting from seed grants for livelihood development, and b) visit a nearby cave. We didn’t know what to expect other than it was a cave with a narrow entrance and a large "hall" – together no more than 60 meters in length. To put this into context, the largest cave in Guangxi has 40 km of passages, but this scarcely rates next to the longest cave in China which has some 160 km of passages, and counting.

Apart from Liu Jin, Louis Deharveng and myself, we were also very grateful to have with us in the cave two other professors: Tian Mingyi from South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, and Zhang Fan from the Institute of Geography in Kunming. A rather special gathering of local biospeleological talent. We also had Feng Bin from the project's conservation office and some of the rangers Louis had trained in 2007.

I've done a fair bit of exploring in caves, but this was Liu Jin's first wild cave. She and I had been in a tourist cave in Guizhou two years ago but this was radically different – no colored flashing lights, no steps, no engineered reflecting pools, no smooth walkways, and no handrails. And we were glad of the good helmets we were given. We all took the walking/climbing in slowly and when we reached the floor of the cave we got to work, trying to see what there was to see by the light of our helmet lamps.

To start, there seemed to be nothing at all, but slowly we keyed our eyes to notice the small animals scuttling between the rocks and jumping between stalactites. There were cries of "look at this," "no, there, THERE," and the like. Tian and Louis were well equipped with specimen bottles, forceps and brushes, and some of the reserve staff was quickly on their knees carefully transferring small animals to the tubes.

ImageSee a video of our cave exploration to get more of the atmosphere of the visit.

The most exciting cave animals are those which have evolved to live in the darkness of caves. Three major types of adaptation are pale color, lack of or reduced eyes, and long legs and antennae. At the end of 90 minutes in the cave we had found about 15 such cave-restricted species and there are probably at least two new species among them – including China's first blind leech and seemingly blind spiders. We thought we had also discovered China's first blind cricket but Louis has looked at it under a microscope and can see tiny eyes reminiscent (to a Frenchman) of 'croissants'. Videos of these animals are in the above link. A fair proportion of the other cave-adapted animals we found – springtails, pseudoscorpions, and millipedes – will also quite likely turn out to be new species once they are examined by specialists.

It was a pretty good haul for 90 minutes. So we packed up, walked back to the village, and returned in our convoy of cars to Huanjiang County Town for a very welcome lunch and a team meetings in the afternoon.


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