News / USA

Cavers Explore Mysterious Hidden Wonders

Much remains undiscovered in millions of caves worldwide

Stalactites in the commercial caves at Glenwood Caverns in Colorado
Stalactites in the commercial caves at Glenwood Caverns in Colorado

Multimedia

Audio
Shelley Schlender

Caves have a subconscious hold on our imaginations - for our ancestors, they were not just shelter from the elements but also symbols of the womb, gateways to the underworld, places of wonder and mystery.

Not so mysterious today, but still full of wonder, caves and caverns continue to draw the adventurous, the curious and the scientific.

There are millions of caves around the world, on every continent, in every country. They are home to some of the strangest creatures on earth - eyeless spiders, hydrogen-eating bacteria, worms that glow and other organisms yet to be discovered.

Hidden dangers

Fred Luiszer, a cave scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says that even space scientists are interested in life underground. “If they find life on other moons and other planets, life will probably be very similar to what we’re finding in caves.”

Snottite is a rare form of gooey, dangling, toxic bacteria that looks like mucus.
Snottite is a rare form of gooey, dangling, toxic bacteria that looks like mucus.

In dark passageways which researchers work diligently to keep uncontaminated, scientists have discovered microbes that show promise as cancer fighters. But some cave life can be deadly.

A sulphur cave in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is home to a rare form of gooey, dangling, toxic bacteria. Their colonies look like mucus and, according to Luiszer, they got their scientific name from the slang term for what drips out of your nose - snot.

“They are called snottites," he says. "I mean, when you look at one of them in the cave, it looks just like snot.  I’m not kidding you.”

Snottites thrive on sulphur fumes, and excrete battery acid, so the cave is a hazard for the occasional amateur who ignores warning signs and ventures in.

“You pass out immediately, and if you stayed in that environment for probably, I’m guessing more than an hour or two, it would kill you,” says Luiszer.

So far, rescuers have saved the handful of people who have fainted in the sulphur cave.

Cave dwellers

Not all cave dwellers are microbial.  In Colorado, scientists recently discovered a tiny red, blind, pseudo-scorpion. Bears also love caves and so do bats. In fact, cavers must be careful not to disturb bat colonies.

“Bats are hibernating creatures and if you wake them up in the wintertime," says Mark Masyln, a Colorado geologist and caving expert, "they go outside and their food source, insects, is not available and they die off. Which is why on commercial tours, you won’t see many bats.”

This tiny red, blind, pseudo-scorpion was recently discovered in Glenwood Caverns.
This tiny red, blind, pseudo-scorpion was recently discovered in Glenwood Caverns.

Caves with large bat colonies are closed to the public for another reason. A mysterious, deadly disease called white nose syndrome has killed more than 400,000 bats in the United States since 2006. Once a colony is infected, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warns that often, over 90 percent of the bats die.

So far, the disease is concentrated in the northeastern U.S. To reduce its spread, wildlife experts have asked cavers to avoid caverns which are not already frequented by tourists or caving groups.

But scientists like Maslyn are trained to keep their gear uncontaminated by white nose syndrome and sometimes they’re permitted to go off the beaten path. Wearing boots and a caving helmet, he strides past the tour group in Colorado Springs' Cave of the Winds, and enters a hidden cave that he helped discover.

Beaded anthodite bush in Cave of the Winds in Colorado Springs
Beaded anthodite bush in Cave of the Winds in Colorado Springs

With a headlamp as his only light, Maslyn unseals an environmental door to reveal what he calls an easy entrance tunnel - half a meter wide - the size of a dinner platter. The reward for squeezing through is a muddy cave containing a dazzling, spiky crystal flower that’s taller than a man.

It’s a beaded anthodite bush. In decades past, Maslyn says, cavers used to carry anthodites away.

To protect these treasures, Masyln follows the caver’s motto: "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time."

Culture of stewardship

That culture of stewardship is emphasized now, even at commercial caves, like Glenwood Caverns.

Tourists head toward the cave door at Glenwood Caverns.
Tourists head toward the cave door at Glenwood Caverns.

It starts even before a tour leader brings her group into the cave, when she warns them not to touch anything inside. As another protective measure, the tunnel leading into the caverns starts with a door that seals in the cave’s natural coolness and humidity and keeps out the hot, dry Colorado air. The guide opens the door for the group, and then shuts it behind them.

And a dozen meters down the tunnel, she leads them through another.

“To keep the water inside," she tells them. "That’s why we have so many doors.”

In some parts of the cave, the humidity tops 90 percent, making rock and mineral formations glisten. Some look like giant strips of bacon, giant soda straws, and popcorn. Stalactites hang high overhead, bathed in what has made them slowly grow over eons of time: water drops.

“If you’re going to be hit by a water droplet like that one, it’s a sign of good luck," the tour guide says. "And we call that the fairy kisses or the cave kisses. And you’re going to be lucky for the rest of the day.”

With luck, and stewardship, future generations will also enjoy the wonders of caves and the fairy kisses they have to offer.

You May Like

UN Watchdog Urges Israel to Probe Possible Gaza War Crimes

More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in a 51-day war in Gaza, along with 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel More

New Kenyan 'Thin SIMs' Poised to Transform African Mobile Money

Equity's new technology is approved in African nation for one-year trial, though industry leader Safaricom says thin SIMs could lead to data theft and fraud More

Solar's Future Looks Brighter

New technology and dropping prices are contributing to a surge in solar power More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid