“After a couple of decades of no confirmed sightings and the documented dramatic decline of other aquatic cave life at Shelta Cave, it was feared by some, including myself, that the crayfish might now be extinct.”– Dr. Matthew L. Niemiller, Assistant Professor at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).
Shelta Cave Crayfish, which exists solely in the aforementioned cave in Alabama, was thought to be extinct for the past couple of decades. Prior to research done by The University of Alabama at Huntsville over the past couple of years, the Shelta Cave Crayfish was last seen in 1988. Dr. Matthew L. Niemiller’s group of scientists found the Crayfish during their expeditions in the cave in 2019 and 2020. The scientist describes the Shelta Cave Crayfish as a “couple of inches long with diminutive pincers that are called chelae.” Dr. Niemiller discovered the Shelta Cave Crayfish in 2019 while he was snorkeling “in about 15 feet of water in North Lake located in the Jones Hall section of the cave.” The scientists were able to identify the crayfish by analyzing “short fragments of mitochondrial DNA in the tissue samples collected.”
Shelta Cave is a 3500-year-old cave in Alabama that is “managed by the National Speleological Society (NSS) and is unobtrusively located beneath the organization’s national headquarters in northwest Huntsville and is surrounded by subdivisions and bustling roadways.” The aquatic ecosystem collapsed at some point in the early 1970s, potentially due to a gate that allowed gray bats to get in and out of the Shelta Cave. While gray bats didn’t initially like the cave, they may have returned to it due to groundwater pollution and other stressors to their prior location at the time. Outside of the crayfish, the scientists weren’t able to find much aquatic life in the cave. On the downside, the crew wasn’t able to find Alabama Cave Shrimp and Tennessee Cave Salamander, which are likely extinct. Image Credits: The University of Alabama at Huntsville