The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Lifestyle

September 17, 2007

Dismalites add sparkle to canyon

PHIL CAMPBELL — Susie Crowell does not like to be alone in the canyon after dark, not even at its mouth or inside the cozy Country Store gift shop.

After dark, the imaginative can hear the whispers of long-dead bandits who hid in the canyon’s caves or the tears of the Chickasaw Indians held captive within its natural boundaries.

Crowell, who manages the store and sells tickets to visitors wanting to tour Dismals Canyon, prefers the company of others at night, when her husband Royce arrives to take the brave into the canyon to see something, perhaps, more rare than the canyon’s ghosts.

By the glow of flashlights, visitors descend along wooden steps into the canyon. Crossing a swinging bridge, they enter a dark, cave-like area where outlaws once hid and turn off the lights.

Soon, the crevice is illuminated by another light, the glow of dozens of miniscule creatures that live on the boulder walls.

Although the creatures known locally as Dismalites are “close cousins” of rare glowworms found in Australia and New Zealand, they are actually fly larvae, said Auburn University entomologist Gary Mullen, who has studied the insects.

“It’s a very unusual group of flies, very closely related to fungus gnats,” Mullen said. Fungus gnats are found near mold and the glowing insects are thought to be so plentiful in Dismals Canyon because of the abundance of moisture and dark areas.

“The steep, well-shaded rock faces and very humid cave-like setting with a lot of algae offers a place where they can concentrate their numbers,” he said. “It’s an extraordinarily large concentration of flies.”

Although the insects were initially believed to be the only ones in North America, Mullen said since classifying them (they are classified as Orfelia Fultoni; family name, Keroplatidae), he has seen a few others in southern states, just not typically in large groups.

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