A strange and threatened ecosystem lurks in the underground waterways


India’s Western Ghats, a mountain range that runs along the country’s southwest coast, could also be in trouble. The Western Ghats are home to many unusual subterranean freshwater fish, including the dragon snakehead, which resembles an armored eel and may represent a relict population that has existed for a hundred million years. But the region is also densely populated by humans, which puts enormous pressure on its aquifers. By 2050, more than 80 million people could lack water.

Invasive species pose another threat, such as catfish or tilapia in the Western Ghats and red swamp crayfish in Europe, which have invaded pits and caves.

Groundwater ecosystems also face pollution. This is partly due to accidental contamination by mining spoils or agricultural fertilizers. And some are intentional, like in Slovenia, where a capacitor factory disposed of toxic waste for two decades by simply pouring it down sinkholes, contaminating olm habitats, or in India, where it’s common to use chemicals chemicals to disinfect the wells.

IN SOME CASES, legislation and lawsuits have forced the preservation of at least some of the stygofauna. Barton Springs Pool is a deep, cold, spring-fed recreational pool near downtown Austin and has been a popular swimming spot for over a century. (Long before the pool was built, the springs themselves were used by indigenous peoples). For part of this time, the city maintained the natural pool in welcoming conditions for human visitors using intensive cleaning methods like hot water, high-pressure hoses, and chlorine.

But humans aren’t the only creatures there – deep within the springs that feed the pool live two different species of salamander: the Barton Springs Salamander, officially named in 1993, and the Blind Austin Salamander, discovered in 2001. .

In 1992, the citizens of Austin passed an ordinance that restricted development in recharge areas and limited spring pollution. That year, the city also stopped using chlorine to control algae at the pool. After the federal government listed the Barton Springs Salamander as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1997, other practices were changed to protect the salamanders. Today, under an agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the city can still use the pool for swimming and can clean it (but with less destructive methods: high-pressure washing in the habitats of salamanders is prohibited and the lowering of the water level for cleaning is limited). But in return, the city must also contribute to protecting the ecosystem.

In 1998, as part of this protection, Austin started a captive breeding program for salamanders. Today, a captive population of about 240 Barton Springs salamanders and about 50 blind Austin salamanders live in a small facility minutes from the springs.

“Our overall goal, and it’s a pretty standard goal for captive breeding programs, is to maintain 90% genetic diversity for a hundred years,” said Dee Ann Chamberlain, environmental scientist and head of the program.

In addition to allowing the study of animals, the program also provides built-in disaster safety. Barton Springs depends on water entering the aquifer and flowing from the surface through nearby areas called recharge zones. A nearby chemical spill from, for example, a tanker truck or industrial accident could spell disaster for salamanders.


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