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

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies 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.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid