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For Immediate Release, October 13, 2011

Contact:  Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Protection Sought for Unique Cave Creature Threatened by Pennsylvania Quarry

ALTOONA, Penn.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Juniata Valley Audubon Society filed a petition today seeking Endangered Species Act protection for Pennsylvania’s Heller Cave springtail, a tiny cave-dwelling arthropod. Discovered in 1997, the springtail is only found in Heller Cave in the central part of the state, where it is threatened by a proposed limestone quarry. The quarry also threatens an imperiled bat species, the eastern small-footed bat; streams and wetlands; and a beloved hiking trail.

“The Heller Cave quarry threatens the survival of a species found nowhere else on Earth,” said Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate with the northeast field office of the Center. “It also will damage important fish and wildlife habitat and the quality of life in central Pennsylvania.”

The quarry is proposed by Gulf Trading and Transport and was granted a permit for operation last year by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. It threatens a tract of land recognized by the state, as well as local and national conservation groups, as both a “biological diversity area” and an “important bird area,” because of its high ecological values, including Heller Cave. Both the state Fish and Boat Commission and the Game Commission have expressed concern about the project’s effects on wildlife, a high-quality tributary of the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River, and wetlands. The Game Commission designated a “total avoidance area” around the caves, to protect the threatened eastern small-footed bat. However, the permit allows mining activity at and around the caves.

“Once people found out about the mining project, we readily organized a broad coalition of nearby landowners, birdwatchers, recreationists, and other local and state conservation groups to oppose it,” said Stan Kotala, spokesman for the Juniata Valley Audubon Society. “The quarry is bad for bats, for birds, for the hundreds of people that use the Lower Trail right next to the site, and for the neighbors that will have to put up with 90 heavy trucks rumbling by on local roads each day.”

Juniata Valley Audubon Society, the Center, and a concerned citizen who regularly recreates in the area appealed the permit last summer. A decision is still pending.

The Heller Cave springtail, which is a little over an eighth of an inch in length, belongs to a group of arthropods that live in various underground environments. Like other springtail species, it has a special appendage on the underside of its body that allows it to jump many times its body length. Cave-dwelling springtails are highly dependent on the stable temperatures and high humidity found in caves, and the Heller Cave springtail would likely not survive long if exposed to outside, surface conditions.  

Cave springtails feed on decaying organic matter, such as fallen leaves that have blown into a cave or are carried in on an underground stream. Some springtails eat bat guano, although it is unknown whether the Heller Cave springtail depends on guano as food. Among other springtails of its type, the Heller Cave springtail is a geographic outlier; no other similar springtail species is found as far north and east in North America.

The Center has also spearheaded an effort to gain greater protections for the eastern small-footed bat, which is declining due to habitat loss and a newly emergent fungal disease called white-nose syndrome that afflicts hibernating bats. In early 2010, the Center petitioned the federal government to list the species under the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted an initial positive finding for listing of the small-footed bat; a final decision is expected next year.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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