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Keywords:

  • cave fauna;
  • conservation genetics;
  • crustaceans;
  • endangered species;
  • phylogeography;
  • stygobite

Abstract

Subterranean animals are currently viewed as highly imperiled, precariously avoiding extinction in an extreme environment of darkness. This assumption is based on a hypothesis that the reduction in visual systems and morphology common in cave faunas reflects a genetic inability to adapt and persist coupled with the perception of a habitat that is limited, disconnected, and fragile. Accordingly, 95% of cave fauna in the United States are presumed endangered due to surface environmental degradation and limited geographic distributions. Our study explores the subterranean phylogeography of stygobitic crayfishes in the southeastern United States, a global hotspot of groundwater biodiversity, using extensive geographic sampling and molecular data. Despite their endangered status, our results show that subterranean crayfish species have attained moderate to high levels of genetic diversity over their evolutionary histories with large population sizes and extensive gene flow among karst systems. We then compare the subterranean population histories to those of common surface stream-dwelling crayfishes. Our results show recent drastic declines in genetic variability in the surface crayfish and suggest that these species also warrant conservation attention.