Celebrating Groundwater and Cave Critters

Article excerpt

What do endangered cave critters, drinking water, and fourth graders have in common? They are all linked by a two-day festival held each spring in Madison County, Alabama.

For the past six years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has teamed up with the Huntsville Grotto and U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal to present "Hungry Cave Critters," an activity involving endangered cave species, to excited fourth graders attending the festival. Students play the roles of various cave critters, including cave crayfish, cave shrimp, and cave salamander. Crawling on the carpet floor of a darkened room, the students search for food cards. Competition for food is fierce; their critter won't survive if the students can't find enough food.

Bats play a key role in a cave's food chain due to their droppings, called guano. Bat guano is an important food source in caves and is eaten by microscopic invertebrates, cave insects, cave crayfish, and cave fish. During the second round of the Hungry Critters activity, our imaginary cave has been vandalized, causing the endangered bats to abandon the cave and thereby upsetting the amount of available food. Many more cave critters die in the game because of the missing guano in the food chain.

After two quick rounds of food gathering, the students learn about the variety of animal species that live underground and glean insight into their fragile cave habitat. Water festival educators emphasize the four endangered cave animals that live in northern Alabama: the gray bat (Myotis grisecens), Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), Alabama cave shrimp (Palaemonias alabamae), and Alabama cave fish (Speoplatyrhimus poulsoni). …