Dean stays active in academic endeavors

A dean of a college has enough work to fill all the hours in a day and then some.  Pursuing his or her academic aspirations can sometimes fall by the wayside.  This has not been the case for Aldemaro Romero.

Romero, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SIUE, authored a book entitled Cave Biology: A Life in Darkness, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009.  The book is about biospeleology, or the study of organisms that live in caves.

For Romero, the book and article are a continuation and a compilation of the work he began as a student.  Romero’s graduate school dissertation studied cave fish.  Romero stated that in the book he proposed a number of new ideas to understand the evolution and ecology of caves.

‘[Romero] challenges the conventional wisdom regarding the biology of caves, and highlights urgent questions that should be addressed in order to get a better and more complete understanding of caves as ecosystems,” according to a Cambridge University Press site.

An editor of American Scientist approached Romero about doing an overview article about the book.  Romero saw this as an opportunity to bring his studies and message to a broader audience.  While his book is geared more towards the academic world, the article is meant for a more general market.  The editor invited him to summarize the most intriguing ideas of the book, according to Romero.  The article, which is now available in print and online, is entitled The Evolution of Cave Life: New Concepts are Challenging Conventional Ideas about Life Underground.

Portion of cover of the American Scientist magazine. Photograph on cover is one from Romero's studies. photo courtesy of American Scientist.

One concept that Romero speaks to in the book and article is the evolutionary idea of neo-Lamarckism, or the concept of ‘use-it-or-lose-it.’  In this concept, through evolution, species will lose things that do not help them in survival.  Romero believes that this concept may not best describe the organisms found in caves.

“What I propose is organisms, particularly aquatic organisms that live in caves, show something that has been found in other animals, which is called phenotypic plasticity,” stated Romero.  “I show some experiments, and summarize also the work done by other scientists, showing that this was the case.”

Phenotypic plasticity looks at how organisms can adapt to their environment, rather than strictly evolve towards something or away from it.  It also challenges the idea that evolution advances only to complexity.

“For many years, the evolution of cave organisms was quite an intriguing question to scientists because most people view evolution as something that leads towards complexity,” said Romero. “However, most cave organisms show a lack of eyes, pigmentation.  They live in environments that are supposed to be really poor in nutrients because there are no plants in caves.”

Romero shows in studies he cites in the book and the article that evolution does not always lead to complexity. Rather, it leads to survival.  This is a contradiction that lead Romero to understand that caves are a perfect natural laboratory.  He states that caves provide insights on how things work, and show the contradiction that organisms are evolving but, at the same time, losing organs.  Romero said this contradiction needs to be solved to better understand the evolutionary concepts that scientists are working on today.

Aldemaro Romero contemplates in the Stratton Quadrangle.

Much of what is known about caves is based on knowledge gained from examining caves in North America and Europe Romero expressed.  Some scientists thought that caves were cut off from the outside world, though more current beliefs disproves this knowledge.  This concept has been challenged as caves in tropical areas are studied and more is learned about how these caves are affected by the ecology above them.

“I talk about the [belief that the] ecology of caves is really poor.  It’s not true when you start studying the caves in the tropics because they have a huge amount of guano deposited by bats that provide a lot of nutrients,” said Romero.  “A lot of the ideas that we have about caves are based on misconceptions of caves in North America or in Europe when in fact some of the biggest caves, and the most diverse, certainly, are in the tropical areas.”

Romero continued by stating that the caves are affected by the ecology of the surrounding areas because the bats leave the caves at night to forage in these surrounding areas.  As a result, the bats bring the external world into the depths of the caves, influencing the cave life with life and diversity or death and destruction, depending on the conditions above.

Aboveground ecology is also imperative to Romero’s studies because caves are formed by natural erosion of water which permeates the calcium carbonate that make up the caves, according to Romero.  Pollution of water and soil will travel with the water into the caves.  Romero states that it may take up to 1,500 years for caves to recycle water naturally and that small changes or impacts on the surface can have a magnifying effect on cave life and ecology.

“Caves represent unique natural laboratories. They have served as a spring of biological ideas in the past, and they still provide us with an excellent venue for confirming and expanding our view of the evolution of life on Earth. As we explore more tropical and subtropical caves, we can expect to be further amazed and challenged by the creativity and opportunism of evolution,” Romero concludes in his American Scientist article.

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