Cool Cave

Caves are other-wordly in terms both aesthetic and scientific. The aesthetics are obvious, but the science is becoming increasingly important, as biologists study the weird single-celled critters that live beneath the Earth’s surface. Stephen Jay Gould once famously observed that the total biomass of single-celled organisms living in the Earth beneath a cow pasture is likely larger than that living in and above it. That makes all underground organisms important, but cave critters and other deep-rock organisms are especially so, because they have evolved entirely different metabolisms, gobbling up their dinner in completely different ways than the bits of life up here with which we are more familiar.

For that reason this cave is exceptional, undisturbed by human visitors until now:

While the snowy river of calcite may be the cave’s marquee attraction? “the eye candy,” Boston called it? much of the scientific interest is focused on an unassuming black dusty crud stuck to the ceiling.

The crud, which Boston described as a sort of black mud crust, seemed at first to be an annoyance as the cavers struggled to keep from disturbing it and contaminating the pristine calcite.

But Boston, a biologist who specializes in the unusual organisms that grow in caves, found that the black crud was really a byproduct of single-celled organisms living on the walls and ceiling of Snowy River.

The microbiology of caves may be invisible, but it is vitally important to the science to be done there, Corcoran said.