Caves and Conservation


Cave Biology. Life in Darkness . Romero, A. 2009 . Cambridge University Press , New York , NY . 306 pp. $60 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-521-53553-3 .

Caves are not hugely popular systems to study or explore and the cave literature seems dominated by peculiar adjectives such as scotophilic, trogloxene, stygobiont, anastomatic, guanobite, and suffocional. There are few books about the biology of caves, so it is welcome to see a solid book like this on the market. Romero has written hundreds of interesting papers on cave biology over the last 25 years. We now have a summary of that work and much else in a single volume.

Romero seeks to show that caves are complex, heterogeneous, dynamic, and worthy of attention. In chapter 1, he provides a fascinating overview of prehistoric, historical, and philosophical awareness of caves, starting with an image of a cave cricket on a 22,000-year-old bison bone. He explains why he believes the field of cave biology has not yet reached its full potential and contrasts the approaches to cave biology used in English-speaking countries with approaches used in France. (Cave exploration in France has been extensive, and French researchers have described many cave species.) Chapter 2 examines the diversity of cave animals. Most people would be surprised to know that at least 50–100,000 organisms live in caves and exhibit relatively unusual adaptations to cave life, such as a lack of eyes, no pigmentation, and long limbs. It is clear there are many more species to be described. The evolution and ecology of cave species are described in chapters 3 and 4, respectively. In chapter 5, Romero attempts to provide an integrated approach to cave conservation, and he ends the book with provocative research ideas.

The conservation chapter provides a systematic review of the effects on caves of urbanization, fertilizer runoff, tourism, deforestation, garbage disposal, quarrying, mining, and changes in flooding regimes and in vegetation above and around caves. I would have liked a discussion of the feasibility of cave conservation by cement companies, which, in their quarrying of limestone hills, have had large negative effects on caves. Some larger cement companies are linked to conservation organizations, but none has as yet attended to conservation of organisms in caves.

I have two complaints. First, all the fascinating examples of cave conservation efforts around the world could not be included, but I wish the International Union for Conservation of Nature Guidelines for Cave and Karst Conservation had been described (although Romero does mention it). Second, perhaps because the book does not consider the biogeography of caves, isolated karsts and their highly range-restricted endemic species are not discussed. This isolation is key to the problems at Ha Tien-Hon Chong at the southern tip of Vietnam; this site is on the 1997 Karst Waters Institute list of top-ten endangered karsts.

I would also have liked more discussion of what cave biologists can actively do to avoid or lessen the number and intensity of threats to caves. One option is to organize themselves so that their skills become better known to those contracting or conducting environmental impact assessments worldwide. I have seen too many inadequate environmental impact assessments that state, in rough précis, “There are no elephants or tigers on this limestone hill so, sure, blow it to bits.”

I found only one mistake. Romero implies there is a single “farm” in Indonesia where the breeding of cave swiftlets occurs. In fact, since at least the 1800s, people in East Java and elsewhere in the region have given over their houses or built dedicated swiftlet houses in order to harvest the birds’ spittle nests for soup.

Romero bemoans the lack of knowledge and understanding of caves, but he does not explain it. To be honest, many people do not like caves—they are dark and mysterious, can be uncomfortable, are often dirty and slippery, and in some areas harbor the organism that causes histoplasmosis. Caves need more friends and this book could encourage new interest and a sense of wonder.