Friday, March 16, 2018

Cave Life of the Colorado Plateau


In El Maipais National Monument on the New Mexico portion of the Colorado Plateau is a special place in too many ways to really count. The name El Malpais is from the Spanish term Malpaís, meaning badlands, and it is called that due to the extremely barren and dramatic volcanic field that covers so much of this rugged area.

The cinder cones, lava flows, and other volcanic elements of El Malpais are part of the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field, the second largest volcanic field in the Basin and Range Province. This volcanically active area on the southeast margin of the Colorado Plateau is at the intersection of the Rio Grande Rift Basin, with its deep normal faulting, and the ancient Jemez Lineament. These two features provide the crustal weaknesses that recent magmatic intrusions and Cenozoic volcanism are attributed to.

The smooth Pahoehoe and rugged A'a' lava flows of the Zuni-Bandera eruptions filled a large basin between the high mesas of the Acoma Pueblo to the east, Mt. Taylor to the north, and the Zuni Mountain anticline to the northwest.

And anywhere there is volcanic activity like this, there are also numerous lava tube caves, like the amazing Big Skylight Cave, where a special habitat exists beneath the light of one of the ceiling entrances. And within this habitat are some amazing lifeforms indeed.

Cave Ecologist and Research Professor Jut Wynne and colleagues discovered an new species of millipede living within this delicate and unique ecosystem. Named Austrotyla awishoshola n. sp. after a local Zuni term awisho(moss) and shola(many-legged creature). This millipede may have become restricted to the cave environment following the end of the Pleistocene, and is a spectacular example of how a species can exist solely in one specialized spot.

For more on this species and other cave life information for the southwest, check out the great links below:

Ecological Inventory of Lava Tube Caves, El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico. Jut Wynne. Colorado Plateau Research Station (note: this link leads to a .pdf document)

Southwest Caves Reveal New Forms of Life - USGS Fact Sheet. Jut Wynne and Charles Drost.

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