Determining the relative importance of factors that define the spatial distribution of species and the structure and dynamics of communities at varying scales is a fundamental goal of ecology. Subterranean spatial ecology is a relatively young subdiscipline. Consequently, many ecological and evolutionary hypotheses remain to be rigorously tested for subterranean ecosystems, particularly in North America. There is uncertainty and debate regarding the importance of several environmental, biological, and evolutionary factors operating at different spatial and temporal scales, ranging from local spatial scales within caves to regional, continental and global scales.
To address the lack of comprehensive species occurrence data, my colleagues and I have assembled a georeferenced database representing over 10,000 records for 750 cave-obligate species in the eastern United States. Using this dataset, we developed models of species occurrence for major terrestrial and aquatic fauna groups based on >10 surface climatic and geological predictor variables, demonstrating that climate and geology can be good predictors of species occurrence for groups of subterranean fauna, just as they are in other ecosystems. I am currently expanding this database to encompass all of the North American subterranean biota (including Hawaii), which will allow us to examine processes shaping biodiversity patterns across spatial scales. Do continental patterns of biodiversity exist in North America and what is the relative importance of climatic and geological history and habitat heterogeneity? We are also using these distributional and life history data to develop models of how species respond to climate change, providing new insights to inform subterranean biodiversity conservation and management decisions.