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John Holsinger, the Old Dominion University biospeleologist who has spent a lot of his career in caves researching the blind crustaceans that live in them, has had to adjust his eyes recently to the limelight.

Colleagues in the National Speleological Society (NSS) paid tribute to Holsinger's more than four decades of research by organizing a special symposium honoring him and his work at the society's 2007 convention late this summer in Marengo, Ind.

In addition, two newspaper articles, including one in The Washington Post, pointed out Holsinger's contributions to cave ecology and subterranean biodiversity in Virginia.

Holsinger, who is an eminent scholar and professor of biology as well as graduate program director for the ecological sciences Ph.D. program, has had flatland ODU as his base since 1968 as he built a reputation around the globe for his highland work in caves and karst. (Karst is the geological term for the irregular limestone terrain containing sinkholes, underground streams and caves.)

He traces his interest in caves and spelunking to his undergraduate days at Virginia Tech, which is in a mountainous part of the state. "There is a lot of caving activity there and I got involved," he says. "I was a biology major, so cave organisms became my focus." Holsinger continued with the focus through his doctoral studies at the University of Kentucky, another institution with karst and caves nearby. He got his Ph.D. in biological sciences in 1966 and two years later joined the faculty at Old Dominion.

He is best known for painstaking research to document different species of subterranean amphipod crustaceans, specimens of which float in alcohol in hundreds of jars in his laboratory. The creatures resemble shrimp or crayfish. A number of cave-adapted invertebrate animals, including species of amphipods, isopods, spiders and snails, have the official Latin name holsingeri. Even two genera, an amphipod and a snail, are named Holsingerius and Holsingeria, respectively.

At the four-hour NSS symposium in Indiana that was dedicated to Holsinger, his colleagues invited him first to the lectern to present "Forty-some Years of Caves, Karst and Speleobios," in which he recounted the high points of his career. "I had gotten wind that the other speakers (there were seven on the program) were going to roast me, as well as speak about my work and how they had interacted with me," Holsinger says. "So during my presentation I got some licks in at them, too. It was a lot of fun. At the conclusion they had an open mike, and some of the people who got up to speak I hadn't seen in 15 or 20 years."

The colleagues' presentations at the symposium were about Holsinger's work with the Virginia Speleological Survey, the Virginia Cave Board, subterranean biogeography, systematics and taxonomy, global collaborations and students.

The ODU scientist has served on the Virginia Cave Board from the time it was formed in 1978 to the present, with the exception of a few years in the middle of the span. The Virginia Star, a newspaper in the mountainous southwestern part of the state, published a profile article on him in September that explored his work with the board, which has a governmental mandate to conserve and protect the state's 4,400 documented caves.

Holsinger said he is proud of the board's efforts to preserve Virginia's caves. "We try to influence zoning and conservation management, and have gone so far as to convince the highway department to route roads away from sensitive karst areas," he says. The board also deals with more mundane threats, such as damage done by people who dump garbage in caves, destroy geological formations, write on walls or commit other acts of vandalism. One way the board members influence public policy is through cave educational programs it promotes in schools. The board also lobbied successfully for passage of the Virginia Cave Protection Act.

Keeping caves pristine helps to protect the quality of underground water, and it gives subterranean amphipod crustaceans, some of which are endangered species in Virginia, a chance to thrive. In some cases, environmental diligence may keep species of yet unidentified crustaceans protected long enough for Holsinger to discover them.

The article in The Washington Post on Aug. 31 noted that Holsinger wrote the authoritative "Descriptions of Virginia Caves" (a book-length work that appeared in the Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Bulletin in 1975). He was quoted in the article as saying the potential for discovery of new species is greater in remote underground domains than anywhere on the earth's surface, with the possible exception of the rain forests. His work with cave crustaceans ranges far beyond Virginia, to places such as South Africa, Russian Far East, India, Brazil, Oman and Mexico.

This article was posted on: October 25, 2007

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