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Caves of California Parks Yield Tiny Discoveries
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Caves of California Parks Yield Tiny Discoveries

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Caves of California Parks Yield Tiny Discoveries
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Sequoia National Park in California may be famous for its massive trees, but some very tiny creatures that live there are also making news. Biologists have discovered new species of spiders, millipedes, and other critters deep in the underground caves of the park. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED, an avowed arachnophobe, crawled around one of the caves this week and has this report.

Ms. SASHA KHOKHA (Reporter, KQED):

Cave biologist, Joel Despain, hands me some Velcro kneepads and a helmet with a headlamp. We have to crawl through a narrow opening to enter the caves.

Mr. JOEL DESPAIN (Cave Biologist): A low ceiling up here, so watch your head.

Ms. KHOKHA: Once we're inside and can stand, we hear the steady drip of water filtering through the marble rock. Inside, it's a constant 60 degrees and very humid. Joel Despain points to a pale pink millipede and says caves are an ideal place for a new species like this to adapt.

Mr. DESPAIN: Millipedes up on the surface are brown or a gray color because that color helps them hide from predators. Here in the cave, there's no reason to have any pigment because there's no light and nothing can see.

Ms. KHOKHA: So far, scientists have discovered 27 new species in caves throughout central California. They found creatures so tiny they couldn't pick them up with tweezers. Some had to be collected on the delicate ends of a paint brush. The spiders and centipedes were pickled and shipped off to taxonomists all around the world who have confirmed that while these new creatures may be close to relatives above ground, they've adapted into completely different species.

Mr. DESPAIN: No light, no wind, no change in temperature, pretty tough place to make a living; not much food, awful hard to find your way around; awful hard to find mates. In order to make it here, they have to evolve. They'll die out if they don't.

Ms. KHOKHA: These creatures look positively extraterrestrial. There's a (unintelligible) so translucent you can see its organs, a spider with hinged jaws twice as long as its body, and then there are the pseudo scorpions.

So, are these gloves that you gave me, Joel, going to protect me from a pseudo scorpion if I put my hand down in the wrong place?

Mr. DESPAIN: Actually, the only thing that would need protecting if you put your hand down in the wrong place would be the pseudo scorpion itself. They don't actually sting (laughter), and they're tiny, tiny. If one bit you, you probably would never even know it.

Ms. KHOKHA: We don't need any pseudo scorpions, but Despain digs under a pile of rocks way back in the cave and finds another species, a pale, white spider.

Mr. DESPAIN: If you looked real carefully, you'd notice that they don't have any eyes. A lot of spiders have eight eyes kind of right on the front of their head. But if you look at these spiders, there are no eyes at all.

Ms. KHOKHA: At first glance, it looks like a ghostly pale version of a regular garden spider. But this one has extra long legs so it can stumble through the dark looking for something to eat. It doesn't have a name yet. Taxonomists have another job now, to give all these new species a name.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

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