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Cumberland Piedmont Network (CUPN)

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Cave Aquatic Biota Monitoring

Endangered Kentucky cave shrimp (Palaemonias ganteri) Endangered Kentucky cave shrimp (Palaemonias ganteri)

Cave Aquatic Biota Resource Briefs

For more information contact: Kurt Helf


  • Cave aquatic biota (CAB) were selected for monitoring at three Cumberland Piedmont Network (CUPN) parks, Cumberland Gap National Historic Park (CUGA), Mammoth Cave National Park (MACA), and Russell Cave National Monument (RUCA), because subsurface waters in these parks support unique communities of aquatic organisms including the federally listed endangered Kentucky cave shrimp (Palaemonias ganteri) at MACA.
  • Jackson County, Alabama, Lee County, Virginia, and Edmonson County, Kentucky, the counties in which RUCA, CUGA, and MACA are located, rank first, fifth, and sixth, respectively, among the ten counties accounting for >25% of endemic cave obligate fauna in the contiguous United States.
  • Cave aquatic communities are vulnerable to chemical and thermal contamination from surface waters. Springs can act as conduits from surface waters when they back flood into cave streams. At MACA, this back flooding is exacerbated by the presence of Lock & Dam #6 located on the Green River just downstream of the park boundary.
  • Watersheds among CUPN's cave parks are recharged by land outside their boundaries. Land use in these watersheds can contribute to the degradation of subsurface water flowing through CUPN cave parks. Agricultural pollutants (e.g., animal waste) and some urban pollutants (e.g., parking lot and road runoff) can accumulate on the surface in "virtual storage" until rainfall events wash them into watersheds or directly into cave streams.
  • Urban development and oil and gas exploration and production can contribute to the chronic release of pollutants directly into the cave streams or indirectly through watersheds.
  • Transportation corridors inside and outside the parks, such as roadways and railroads, are another source of episodic spills of hazardous materials which are quickly washed into park watersheds.
  • Anticipated anthropogenic and natural alterations to future hydrologic conditions at CUGA, MACA, and RUCA make this a fortuitous time to begin monitoring cave aquatic biota using a rigorous methodology. The predicted rise in the frequency of extreme climate events (e.g., heavy precipitation) across the Southeast region may, through increasingly intense flooding, reduce diversity in cave aquatic ecosystems.

Monitoring Objectives

Eyeless cave fish (Amblyopsis spelaea) in Mystic River Eyeless cave fish (Amblyopsis spelaea) in Mystic River
  1. Identify changes in occurrence among individual cave aquatic biota over time and space.
  2. Determine whether trend data on cave aquatic communities reflect changes in abiotic (e.g., water quality parameters or habitat characteristics) or biotic (e.g., competition with "exotic" species) stressors.
  3. Determine whether trend data on cave aquatic communities, based upon the parameters associated with abiotic or biotic stressors, differ among sites/watersheds within the cave aquatic ecosystem.
  4. Provide information on long-term trends in distribution of cave aquatic biota to park managers and assist resource managers by determining the potential impacts of urbanization, habitat loss/degradation, management practices or other identified stressors on cave aquatic biota populations.
  5. Provide data to meet legal mandates (e.g., monitor abundance trends for federally endangered P. ganteri) related to natural resource protection.

Management Applications

Resource managers can learn little about the impact of stressors on cave aquatic biota by relying solely on data gathered during water quality monitoring. In fact, the main purpose of water quality monitoring is to create a long-term data set for trend analysis and directly support and aid the interpretation of aquatic biological monitoring. The intent of the CAB monitoring protocol is to ensure that a scientifically credible story about the ecological condition of CAB and their responses to contingent climatic conditions, park management actions, land use changes, and other stressors can be told to park visitors and managers alike. These long-term data can contribute to the development of informative models of relationships between CAB population dynamics and key environmental factors and management actions by resource managers at CUPN host parks.

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Last Updated: December 30, 2016 Contact Webmaster