International Year of Cave and Karst/Cave Animal of the Year

Great Basin cave pseudoscorpion, image, Gretchen Baker

2021 has been designated the International Year of Caves and Karst. Nevada has over 580 known caves, with most in the eastern and central portions of the state. Over 20% of its land mass is karst. Most people know what caves are, but what is karst? 

Karst is permeable rock that contain caves, sinkholes, sinking streams, and subterranean rivers. It forms most frequently in limestone, dolomite, and marble rocks. 

Most people don’t think much about caves and karst. You might say the adage, “Out of sight, out of mind” rings true. Here’s a little light to help illuminate these amazing underground spaces, with a particular focus on what lives in the caves. 

Caves are homes to many endemic species, species that exist only in that particular area, and nowhere else. Over the past 20 years, 10 species new to science have been identified from Nevada caves. 

Image, Gretchen Baker

Some of these species are cave-adapted, meaning they can only live in caves. They have lost their pigment, as over millennia they have evolved so they no longer need protection from the sun. Some have lost their eyes, as seeing is impossible in a totally dark environment, so eyes provide no advantage. Appendages, like legs, may have grown longer than surface cousins, as the sense of feel is more important in the dark caves. Metabolism may have slowed down, allowing cave creatures to live longer underground than their cousins up on the surface, who are busy keeping up with faster paced life.

To celebrate cave life, the National Speleological Society (NSS) has developed a Cave Animal of the Year program. For its inaugural year in 2020, the Great Basin Cave Pseudoscorpion was chosen. Where does it live? Why only in Nevada! The Great Basin Cave Pseudoscorpion was first discovered in 1930 by the manager of Lehman Caves. In 1960, Dr. William Muchmore described it as a species new to science. In the last 15 years, it has been found in a handful of other caves, all in the South Snake Range in the eastern part of the state. 

Image – Gretchen Baker

Pseudoscorpions are not true scorpions, they do not have a stinging tail. They do have claw-like appendages in front of their eight legs, and they use these to grab their prey, often flies. They inject venom into the prey through specialized teeth, which dissolves the prey’s tissues. Then they suck up their meal.

Pseudoscorpions are often found under rocks and near leaf litter. They are quite small and can be hard to find unless you know what you’re looking for. Nevertheless, they are important in the food web. Within caves, they are the apex predator, equivalent to a mountain lion in the forests of the Great Basin. 

You can learn more about this cool creature, along with the 2021 Cave Beetles that are featured for the 2021 Cave Animal of the Year on the NSS Cave Conservation webpage. There are also links to a few other countries that also have Cave Animal of the Year programs. 

In addition to interesting cave invertebrates, caves are also homes to various bat species, packrats, and more. Many different species take refuge in cave entrances, such as jackrabbits, skunks, foxes, and more. 

We still have so much to learn about cave life. They are essential habitats to many species that otherwise wouldn’t have a home. As you look at rocky hillsides, consider what might be living inside them. If you visit caves, remember that you are a visitor to some special creatures’ home, and be as good a guest as you can be. 

The Nevada Treasures column features what is worth knowing about and protecting in Nevada. Gretchen Baker lives in Baker, Nevada on a ranch with her family. She is the ecologist for Great Basin National Park. She spends a lot of her free time exploring the outdoors.