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How Cave Biology Works


Studying Cave Biology

Perhaps we can trace the origins of cave biology to the late 1700s, when locals spotted foot-long (30.5-centimeter) salamanders in some Slovenian caves [source: Krajick]. These salamanders -- called Proteus salamanders -- were and are among the largest troglobites known. Even though we only became aware of cave biology in the past few centuries, some of the types of organisms dwelling inside caves have been around for hundreds of millions of years.

Cave biologists have to get deep inside a cave to study what lives there. Depending on the cave, this process may entail literally squeezing inside. Scientists wedge themselves through narrow openings 60 feet (18 meters) long before emerging into a cold, damp area. But once they get inside, there are countless discoveries just waiting for them.

By turning over rocks, shining flashlights into damp, dark recesses and peering into pools of water to find creepy-crawlies, cave biologists are many times the first humans to lay eyes on these creatures. It's imperative to treat these habitats and organisms with respect. The Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988 enacted laws to protect and preserve caves. This act made it a criminal offense to disturb, destroy or deface any type of life within a cave, including the cave structure itself.

As we learned earlier, all species in a cave depend on each other to survive. Even just entering a cave can alter its ecosystem -- we all carry lint, hairs and even dandruff on our bodies. Shedding these inside a cave can introduce new fungi and bacteria to the environment. Visiting a cave is fine in small doses, but if humans over-visit and pollute a cave, the entire bionetwork can collapse and die. Many serious cavers and biologists won't even reveal their best research spots for fear that others will enter and disturb the ecosystem.

Speaking of altering the ecosystem, researchers are finding that climate change also affects cave biology. The dark zones of a cave have constant cool temperatures. Cave organisms have evolved over millions of years to adapt to this stability. If the planet's temperatures continue to ascend, scientists fear that many troglobites won't be able to adapt quickly enough to keep up [source: Krajick].

So how do cave biologists study within a cave? Many enter and leave jars full of bait to attract creatures. A favorite bait is stinky cheese, likely because of its strong odor. Remember, cave-dwelling animals have very advanced senses to make up for their lack of sight. Some cave biologists spend hours inside a cave, watching and recording all the action. And some will simply lie in wait and pluck up an organism with tweezers, put it in a jar, and take it out of the cave for further research.

For more information on caves and cave creatures, see the links on the next page.


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