22 August 2007

Rattlesnakes, Lizards and Cave Bugs, Oh My!

Day 2 (20 August 2007)

Last night was incredibly peaceful up on the North Rim. Our camp is located at around 5500ft elevation in the pinyon-juniper woodland, and last night it became quite chilly. I’m not sure exactly how cold it was last night, but I’d say it was in the 50s. Once I had finally settled in, the silence was broken around 0430hr by a pack of coyotes howling and yipping in the distance. There’s perhaps nothing better on this planet than being serenaded by a pack of coyotes in the American Southwest.

At around 0700hr, it was time to get up, make breakfast, break camp and get ready for another day underground. Once all this was accomplished, we headed for our next stop -- Lizard Cave. As I was standing above this downsloping cork-screw narrow entrance, I did my best John Rhys-Davies impression and stated, “Hasps, very dangerous – you go first.” No more than two seconds later, we heard a rattler. I was unable to see him, so I could not identify him to species. He was wedged in a small rocky crag beyond my sight, but near the cave entrance. We decided to give him a few minutes before we entered the cave. I figured because we had disturbed him, he would likely move on. After about five minutes had passed, I decided I would climb down into the cave. Rattlesnakes tend to rattle first and bite later – especially, if they are given the opportunity to do so. I chose to give him plenty of opportunity.

Also, on the ledge above the cave entrance was a large and “ferocious” crevice lizard. This lizard is the namesake for this cave name synonym that were using to describe this cave. As I approached this cave entrance a second time, he started doing “lizard pushups” and flicking his head toward me. This behavior is done to intimidate other male lizards. Presumably, they do this to warn other crevice lizards they are entering their territory. I guess he did this to me to let me know I was on his turf.

After my brief encounter with the big boss of this cave, I tossed a few rocks into the entrance to see if our other cave entrance-dwelling reptile had chosen to move on. Upon hearing nothing, I decided to it was now safe to venture into the darkness.

Once underground, I hollered at Kyle it was okay to enter. Kyle then crawled into the cave and we were ready to begin a day of searching for and trapping invertebrates. Today was quite successful as compared to yesterday. However, we both knew it would be. Lizard Cave is home to one of our new discoveries – it contains a large colony of a new genus of cave cricket.

Crickets can be vitally important to cave ecosystems. They transport nutrients, via guano into the cave environment. Their presence can often fuel and entire subterranean ecosystem.

A female spider and egg sac. This specimen was not collected. It is difficult to identify invertebrates unless you have an adult male. This spider belongs to the family Theridiidae -- the same family as black widow spiders.

Because of this, we are hopeful our research at Lizard Cave will contribute to the discovery of additional new species. At nearly every sampling station we surveyed, we found and collected invertebrates. This included spiders, pseudoscoprions, psocopterans, crickets and beetles. In general, caves are nutrient starved environments, and we always collect specimens judiciously. Our research goals are to identify the invertebrate communities in an attempt to protect these ecosystems. So, we are very cautious not to over collect invertebrates.

After about five hours at Lizard Cave, it was time survey our next cave – Rattlesnake Cave. Rattlesnake cave was known to contain rattlesnakes, and today was no different. As we were standing at the entrance, we heard a rattler sound. Once again, we remained topside for a few minutes to deliberate our next move. We ultimately decided to go into the cave, and I went first. We took the same approach as at Lizard Cave – we passed our gear down and then Voyles entered. At once, I realized this would not be a good candidate for our research. The cave had no dark zone, and was lit up by several small holes leading to the surface.

Because we were there, we decided to fill out several survey forms and look around for signs of animal life. As I was scanning the rock floor, my eyes were drawn to a large boulder – atop this boulder was a neatly coiled western rattlesnake. We both removed our cameras from the bag and began to slowly approach the snake. The snake at once retreated, but before he did, he gave us a warning with his rattle. This snake was about five feet in length and was a remarkably beautiful animal. I felt quite blessed to encounter this magnificent creature underground.

After our apparent last rattlesnake encounter for the day, we hiked back to the vehicle. We had one more stop to make. We were going to Drybone Cave. We had observed bat activity at Drybone the day before, and we were going to deploy an ultrasonic bat detector (aka ANABAT) that would run overnight. After this was accomplished, we headed back to our campsite to make camp. It was another great day in Grand Canyon country.

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