The View from Here


Creatures of the Underworld
April 24, 2009, 11:21 am
Filed under: Caves

My explorations and appreciation of caves is not limited to the geology. Caves are certainly not devoid of life, especially near the entrance. Bats are the most famous inhabitants of caves, a common fixture in Hollywood versions. I have indeed encountered Vampire bats in caves, but only in Central America. No, they didn’t attack. They are creatures of stealth, preferring to quietly open a vein on their victim, using teeth so sharp that it doesn’t wake a sleeping cow or human.  Their guano is truly disgusting. Unlike the relatively inoffensive compost left by insect and fruit-eating bats, Vampire guano is digested blood, resembling a pool of chocolate sauce, but smelling like… well, it is indescribably nasty.
Caves in Kentucky are a bit more tame than tropical caves. Although there may be fairly large bat colonies in some North American caves, especially in the southwest, most bat colonies in the midwest are limited to a few thousand individual bats at most.( These days, our local bat colonies are under threat from White Nose Syndrome, a poorly understood fungal infection that is wiping out colonies in the northeast.) A tropical bat colony’s guano piles are intensely alive, seething with roaches and other insects and arachnids.
The bats support a whole ecosystem of other creatures that live on the bat guano or those that eat the bat guano. Cave crickets, Cave salamanders, millipedes, cave beetles and cave spiders are common. Seen less often are aquatic critters like blind cave fish and cave crayfish. These are highly specialized creatures, unable to survive outside of the cave environment.

A Cave Crayfish--no pigment, no eyes

A Cave Crayfish--no pigment, no eyes

A blind cave fish from Pulaski County, KY

A blind cave fish from Pulaski County, KY

These animals live in a world of perpetual blackness. Beyond the twilight zone near the entrance, the darkness is absolute. Even powerful light amplification equipment will detect no light. So it is no surprise that permanent troglobitic animals have no eyes or pigment. There would be no use at all for these features. They feel their way through their world, using extra long antennae, or sensitive nerves tuned to the slightest vibrations. They are able to live on minimal diets in a very lean ecosystem.

Cave Salamanders live near the entrance zone, where their insect prey is more plentiful

Cave Salamanders live near the entrance zone, where their insect prey is more plentiful

Cave crickets live near entrance zones, and leave the cave at night to feed

Cave crickets live near entrance zones, and leave the cave at night to feed

We were exploring a small cave in Kentucky that we had to excavate a bit to get into. Sediments had blocked the entrance leaving only a tiny hole blowing air. The airflow indicated a sizable cave, so we set about enlarging the entrance. Once I was able to squeeze my head and shoulders into the hole, I saw thousands of cave crickets, covering the walls and ceiling. Crawling into that cramped space with so many crickets would have meant having them literally in your face, and nose, ears, and mouth. We decided to come back at another time. Apparently we found the crickets queing up for their nightly foray onto the forest floor to eat.  In Yucatan, we got to experience a  major bat flight, similar to the one at Carlsbad Caverns in the US, where multiple thousands of bats fly out of the cave.   We were inside a large room with an opening at the top. The bats began gathering as dusk approached, flying in circles around the room as more and more bats accumulated.  Eventually the black cloud of living mammals spiraled out the opening. We sat on the floor looking straight up into the swirling bats. Awesome!

A solitary hibernating Pipistrel bat, covered with condensation.

A solitary, hibernating Pipistrel bat covered with condensation.
"Still Life with Cricket"  20 x15 acrylic on panel

"Still Life with Cricket" 20 x15 acrylic on panel

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Tales from the Underworld
April 21, 2009, 11:31 am
Filed under: Adventures, Caves

I’ve been a caver for 37 years. Maybe longer if you count my childhood tendencies to crawl into dark places. For those not put off by the darkness or bats, caves have that something that excites the instinct to explore. Explore we have, mapping many miles of dark tunnels and crawlways under the green hills of Kentucky. For me, it wasn’t just about the thrill of discovery. Caves are an aesthetic experience, like underground sculpture galleries. The limestone is scalloped and fluted, and corroded into a swiss-cheese maze, sometimes decorated by fantastic crystalline ornaments.

Wells cave, an 11 mile system in southern KY

Wells Cave, an 11 mile system in southern KY

There is also the time-capsule factor. Because caves have no weather (if they are above flood stage levels), whatever changes made by visiting animals or humans last for tens of thousands of years. I’ve seen 4,500 year old footprints left by prehistoric Indian explorers and 10,000 year old tracks left by an ancient Jaguar in a Tennessee cave.  I’ve seen 1,000 year old Mayan storage jars in Belizean caves that still contained corn cobs a couple of inches long, the ancestors of todays foot-long ears.

1,000 year old Myan storage pots in a cave in Belize

1,000 year old Mayan storage pots in a cave in Belize

I was once shown a pit in a cornfield in Yucatan by a Mayan friend. I rappelled into the 50ft pit, feeling pretty high-tech with my modern climbing and caving gear (sandals and candles are standard Mayan caving gear). On bottom, I found myself standing on a pile of debris in the middle of a flooded passage. I couldn’t proceed without swimming, so I looked down to see if I could spot any potshards. It was then that I realized I was standing on a pile of human bones! These were likely the victims of a battle that occurred here (the late Post-Classic city of Mayapan) several hundred years ago. I climbed back up the rope, using my mechanical ascenders that grip the rope and allow you to climb without risk of losing your grip and falling. I got to the top and found that a crowd of Mayan spectators had gathered. I sat on the lip of the pit while I derigged myself, and then clumsily dropped one of my ascenders into the pit. I cursed myself and prepared to do the climb all over again to retrieve the ascender, when a Mayan stepped forward, said “No ay problema,” and slid down the rope bare handed. He clenched the ascender in his teeth, and shinnied back up the rope in seconds. I feebly thanked him as he handed me the ascender. So much for feeling superior for possessing hi-tech gear.actun-xpukil-entrance
Nowadays I don’t do much of the hard-core exploration, crawling for miles, climbing hundred-foot pits, or spending 20 hours underground. That stuff is better suited for 20-somethings. I suppose I could lose some weight and whip myself into shape so that I could once again suffer for exploration, but my interests lie more in finding imagery. A casual stroll with a camera and tripod are more to my liking. Of course, there is rarely such a thing as a casual stroll in a wild cave. Cameras have to be packed in waterproof boxes and handled carefully to prevent their destruction by dust infiltration. To find caves free of trash and graffiti means going to places that have “nerd filters” as they are called in the caving parlance. These filters are usually deep pits, or tight, long and difficult crawlways. Things to discourage the casual caver, which I would like to be most days. I guess we do have to suffer for our art. See http://www.johnnagnew.com for examples of my cave art.

A burial cave in Sarawk, Malaysia (Borneo)

A burial cave in Sarawk, Malaysia (Borneo)

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