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David Liittschwager

David Liittschwager
Photograph by TK

Some people like spending a lot of time crawling around in dark, tiny holes, but I have to say, caving isn’t one of my favorite things to do. I’d say I’m even susceptible to claustrophobia. But one day in Sequoia National Park was pretty special.

I was tagging along on a few surveys of the park’s some 250 caves, accompanying biologists trying to relocate 27 species. I went into Kaweah Cave with Jean Krejka, who was looking for a millipede species she’d found a couple summers ago—only she couldn’t find one. All of a sudden she got very excited, and she brought out a pseudoscorpion.

It was immediately clear this was strictly a cave-dwelling creature, from the hairs on its pinschers to the length of its pinschers versus its body size. And it was so obviously different than anything else previously found that the scientists knew almost at once that it was a new species. Being there when they made that discovery was truly the highlight of this assignment.

Although the view of the countryside seen from the entrance to Panorama Cave is indeed lovely, the cave is anything but. The day started at 6 a.m. with a four-and-a-half-hour-long climb from about 7,800 (2,380 meters) feet to 10,000 (3,050 meters) feet, carrying a heavy load of camera equipment. I’m from San Francisco, and am not used to altitude, so when I got to the cave, I was tired and had a headache.

Then, I discovered that Panorama is truly inhospitable for large mammals. A huge block of ice at the top of the cave keeps the cave really cold and damp. It was almost as if I was working in a refrigerator, with the temperature only a few degrees above freezing. The passageways were tight and cramped, and there was rock fall everywhere—the ceiling is constantly falling, cracking off in layers, due to the moisture—making it difficult to move around.

We’d gone in to find the terachis, species number two. We spent several hours looking, and eventually found it, so the day was a success, but by the time we got back to the car at the trailhead, it was well after midnight. Between the altitude and the cave, I was just done in.

I was in Sequoia National Park’s Crystal Cave to photograph a newly discovered species of flatworm, a still unnamed Tricladid. Far in the back, well off the paved tourist trail, I was shown a little pool of water, no more than 12 to 18 inches (30.5 to 45.7 centimeters) wide and less than 3 feet (1 meter) long. When the water table is high, during the rainy season, the pool reaches a depth of 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12.7 centimeters). This pool is the flatworm’s one and only known habitat, which makes this flatworm extremely endangered—although it’s not officially listed as such. It’s the smallest range of habitat I’ve ever seen.

I didn’t want to harm or disturb the environment in any way—I’d be photographing for 2 to 3 hours—so I set up my camera equipment some distance from the pool. My first thought when they brought me the flatworm was, This is going to be a really hard sell. How can I make this little speck of white interesting?

This unlikely subject, however, turned out one of my favorite pictures.

Stretched out, the flatworm can be about three millimeters long, while rolled up, it’s about a millimeter in size. I put it in a drop of water in a Petri dish and watched as it contorted into amazing shapes, exploring the confines of the drop. At one point it got into an S shape, kind of like a question mark. It’s really neat: You can’t tell which end is up, and it’s not actually white—it’s got a little bit of blue. This picture features in the article.

Read author Kevin Krajick’s field notes.

Read the full text of the Troglobites article.

View the photo gallery for the Troglobites article.

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