Within Castleguard Cave, two unique species have been identified: Stygobromus canadensis, the Castleguard amphipod, and Salmasellus steganothrix, another small, blind, freshwater, cave-dwelling crustacean. Both troglobitic species, these crustaceans only live in caves and have no eyes or pigmentation. “The fact that the amphipod is only found in that cave makes that lifeform special,” says Horne. “It’s rare and unique to that point.”
Researchers speculate that the Castleguard amphipod was present in the cave during the last ice age, when zero nutrients would be entering the area. “I think it can tell us something about survival in a very austere environment,” says Horne. “Some people would say it’s just some tiny little bug. Who cares, right? But it has evolved, and it’s maybe been in that landscape long before glaciers were covering the mountain.” Researchers still have many questions about the amphipod, from its lifecycle to how often it reproduces. The KBA designation will allow them to spend more time answering these questions.
Wildlife Conservation Society pushed for the KBA designation for Castleguard Cave, which is administered by Parks Canada. Although KBAs do not provide legal protection, they are important because they identify places where stewardship and conservation efforts are necessary. The KBA will also foster collaboration between experts, traditional knowledge-holders, citizen scientists and research groups to raise awareness about the unique species and ecosystems within the cave.
Since 1996, Horne has been confirming the locations of the amphipod within Castleguard but population sizes are challenging to determine. In 2007, 40 amphipods were counted, but then in 2021, there were only eight. “This is a creature that’s small enough to accidentally drink, and it wouldn’t even tickle your throat,” says Horne. “But just because you can barely see the thing doesn’t mean that it’s not important.”
In a world that is desperately trying to find life somewhere other than Earth, the existence of the amphipod provides insight into surviving in places with little to no nutrients. “Think about a species that can live on the leftovers before the last ice age covered the mountain,” says Horne. “If we found a creature like that on another planet or moon, oh my goodness. You can imagine it would make world news forever.”
Horne explains that he wants to raise awareness of the in unique lifeforms in caves for people who may be unaware or unable to access these isolated spaces. “It’s not a beautiful, sexy kind of animal,” he says. “But it deserves to live as much as anything else does. And it might have been around on this Earth longer than we have, so let’s cherish it.”