Scorpion-like creature becomes latest species found in caverns
When Steve Beckley began bringing visitors into Glenwood Caverns, he had no idea of the diversity of life already inside.
Beckley, owner of the caverns, says more than 50 new species have been discovered in the Glenwood Springs tourist attraction, ranging in size from bacteria to a half-inch pseudoscorpion recently named for Dave Steinmann, the Boulder biologist who collected it for study.
Beckley said the pseudoscorpion, Cryptograegris steinmanni, is notable for being a carnivore at the top of the cave food chain, and for questions surrounding how it got into and developed in caves thought to be 4 million or 5 million years old.
“How has it evolved in that time to live in total darkness and hunt its food source? It’s pretty amazing,” Beckley said.
He said the discovery of so many species at Glenwood Caverns has been a pleasant surprise.
“Now I just need to find a roomful of gold,” he said.
For now, Colorado caves such as Glenwood Caverns are at least zoological treasure troves.
Steinmann said he has found about 100 new species in Colorado caves and has only visited about 50 of the caves to date. He estimates there are hundreds, perhaps even a thousand, more species waiting to be discovered.
“I tell my friends every time I want to find a new species I just go to a cave I haven’t visited before,” he said.
The year Glenwood Caverns opened to the public, 1999, Rifle High School graduate Michelle Lyons, at the time a premed student, discovered seven new bacteria in the caves’ waters.
The Glenwood Caverns pseudoscorpion was discovered in 2000 by Micah Ball, then serving as a guide for the caverns’ wild tour. Steinmann, an associate at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, came to investigate and collect specimens.
Those specimens now reside at the museum after having been shipped to experts in New York and Australia who last year named the species after Steinmann.
Steinmann said he is honored by that gesture, and a springtail he found in Fulford Cave in Eagle County also has been named after him.
He has discovered another new species of springtail that lives in Hubbard Cave near Glenwood Springs and in Glenwood Caverns. He also has found other new species in Glenwood Caverns such as millipedes, centipedes and beetles.
“It’s like its own living world in there that’s completely isolated from the rest of the planet in a way,” he said.
Nutrients brought in by rodents, bats and flowing water help sustain life underground in places such as Glenwood Caverns, he said.
The pseudoscorpion found there may have evolved from surface ancestors, eventually showing adaptations such as reduced eye size and less pigmentation.
Instead of having a stinger on its tail like a scorpion, the pseudoscorpion uses claws to deliver venom, which could be studied for possible medicinal uses, Steinmann said.
Steinmann has discovered a second new pseudoscorpion in a cave north of Glenwood Springs. He also found an underground harvestman spider in Glenwood Canyon that’s being studied for links to another harvestman that evolved there on the surface.
Steinmann is participating in a study involving a cave in Steamboat Springs where worms have been discovered to be living off hydrogen sulfide, as do tube worms found in deep sea thermal vents. The Steamboat worms’ blood is proving to have extremely high oxygen-binding capabilities, he said.
Colorado’s caves contain animals that have adapted to the rigors of the caves’ high altitude and cold temperatures. But Steinmann estimates that in the cases of some newly discovered species there are just a few hundred individuals, at times limited in habitat to just one cave or cave region, meaning extinction is a threat. Still, Steinmann is struck by the diversity of underground life he has found in places like Glenwood Caverns.
“It’s a really great cave,” he said.
He said he’s the only person he knows of who is studying macroinvertebrate life in Colorado caves. He is surprised there aren’t more people doing the same.
“But it’s also really a lot of work to find the caves and hike through them and crawl through all these passageways,” he said.
The work also requires patience to find and collect specimens, and Steinmann must obtain permits to do his collecting, and he must find experts to study what he finds.
“It’s not so easy as going to find a bug,” he said.