A tiny natural treasure buried deep beneath a mountain


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Peter Soroye
Key Biodiversity Areas Assessment and Outreach Coordinator

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Key Biodiversity Areas

Published

2023-01-30

In Banff National Park, Castleguard Cave becomes one of the first sites in Alberta to be recognized as a globally significant Key Biodiversity Area (KBA).

(Banff, January 30, 2023) — Deep in a remote cave system in Banff National Park is a tiny, largely transparent creature that looks something like a miniscule shrimp. Despite its tiny size, this freshwater amphipod crustacean, known as the Castleguard Cave Amphipod (Stygobromus canadensis), has been very influential in driving the process of designating the entire 21-kilometre long Castleguard Cave System as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). And that’s because this amphipod occurs nowhere else in the world.

Scientists still don’t know a great deal about this particular amphipod, which has somehow survived for millennia in this cold, nutrient poor and frequently flooded environment, but its uniqueness made this site a prime candidate for KBA status. It is not just the rarity of this species that is drawing conservation interest to Canada’s largest known cave system, however. It is also what it tells us about life in an underground chamber that is believed to have remained intact and ice free for more than 700,000 years. Formed by meltwaters from the Columbia Icefield glaciers that lie above the cave, this subterranean habitat gives us a window into life before the last ice age.

The KBA program works with governments, local conservation organizations, citizen scientists, and Indigenous Nations to collaboratively identify the places that are most critical to conserve to avoid losing a species or ecosystem from Canada or the world. Sites are recognized based on meeting strict quantitative criteria, whether that is related to the significant presence of highly unique species such as the Castleguard amphipod or the retention of large, intact areas of habitat that support a wide variety of species. Because KBAs are identified through a scientifically rigorous process, they are a broadly trusted tool for ramping up our conservation efforts in the face of accelerating climate change and disappearing wildlife. While KBAs are not designed to provide any legal protection, they are an excellent way of identifying places in protected and unprotected areas where conservation and stewardship efforts can have a large impact on halting and reversing the loss of nature. Identification of the Castleguard Cave system as a KBA, for example, can help ensure that greater attention is paid to a unique underworld that may see more flooding from glacial meltwaters due to climate change or other changes.

With more than 70 sites now officially listed as KBAs across Canada and more than 850 more under consideration, this program is picking up momentum just as Canada signs on to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework following the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Montreal last month.

Parks Canada administers one of the finest and most extensive systems of natural and cultural heritage places in the world. Castleguard Cave is located in a special preservation zone in Banff National Park, the highest level of protection offered in national parks, and cave exploration in a national park is illegal without a special permit. Castleguard Cave is in a restricted area 20 km from the nearest road and can only be explored in winter. It has numerous unique characteristics, from the tiny Castleguard Cave amphipod found nowhere else on earth, to highly unusual, nearly cubical “cave pearls” found in few other places in the world.

Wildlife Conservation Society Canada scientist, Michael Rudy, worked with Parks Canada to develop the KBA proposal for the Castleguard Cave KBA and can speak to the process of how other exceptional sites for biodiversity are being recognized across Alberta and Saskatchewan. Wildlife Conservation Society Canada scientist, Peter Soroye, can speak to the purpose and achievements of the KBA program and how it is helping to conserve unique places like the Castleguard Cave across Canada.

Watch this video of Parks Canada Species of Concern Ecologist, Anne Forshner, speaking on the Castleguard Cave KBA and why Parks Canada is excited about the KBA designation: https://drive.google.com/file/d/17iF6fONlrEYJKO1rFZvgIK01FY_Ul-W5/view?usp=sharing

Learn more about the Castleguard Cave KBA at the KBA Canada website here: https://kbacanada.org/site/?SiteCode=AB130

KEY FACTS 

  • Castleguard Cave is a limestone cave located in Banff National Park, AB. Featuring over 21.3 km of surveyed passages, it is currently Canada's longest known cave system. It is believed that the cave's interior has remained intact and ice-free for at least 700,000 years. It is the only known cave in the world to be found under glacial ice and the best-known Canadian cave internationally.
  • The Castleguard Cave Amphipod (Stygobromus canadensis) is an entirely blind and unpigmented freshwater amphipod crustacean found only in the subterranean environment of Castleguard Cave, where it is believed to have survived since before the glaciation of the surrounding landscape during the last ice age.
  • Apart from its unique biological diversity, the cave also includes one of only five known examples in the world of highly unusual nearly cubical 'cave pearls'.
  • KBAs provide an opportunity to collaborate with experts, traditional knowledge-holders, citizen scientists and Indigenous groups to recognize some of the most critical natural areas in the province that allow biodiversity to persist on the planet and raise awareness of these unique species and ecosystems.
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