Spineless creature studied in DC swamp

Spineless creature studied in DC swamp

Its name is Stygobromus hayi, the Hay's Spring amphipod. It is spineless. It lacks vision. It is an opportunistic feeder, consuming whatever resources are available -- perhaps including the remains of its own kind.

That is where its similarities to some of Washington, D.C.'s more notorious megafauna end. And while this tiny creature has been the subject of scientific inquiry in recent years, researchers report on a way to survey it without threatening its existence, as other studies had done.

The Hay's Spring amphipod lives in swampy areas called seepage springs where groundwater sometimes spills out onto the surface of Rock Creek Park, in Washington, D.C., its only known home in the world. Because it is so rare, and perhaps also because of its prestigious ZIP code and proximity to the National Zoo, this tiny crustacean is on the U.S. endangered species list.

"Yes, it's small, it's white, it's eyeless, it lives underground," said Matthew Niemiller, an ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey who led a recent study to search for the creature in its Rock Creek Park home. "It's not a cute, cuddly or charismatic species. But we're still learning more and more about groundwater ecosystems. And there is evidence that these crustaceans are important indicators of groundwater quality, and may play important roles in water purification and nutrient cycling over time."

The Hay's Spring amphipod's subterranean habitat makes it particularly difficult to study, Niemiller said.

"To find out where species are located and how many there are, we have to disturb the site," he said.

This normally involves sifting through waterlogged leaves in muddy seepage areas, where underground springs leak out to the surface.



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