By Aimee Shafer
Few of us have been intrepid enough to step deep inside a cave. What’s to see anyway? Caves are completely devoid of light.
Yet, these delicately balanced ecosystems offer much to experience. Let me take you on an armchair tour to shed a light on these otherworldly places. Remember, you’ll need gloves and clean gear to keep the magnificent environment pristine. Now, grab a flashlight and let’s begin exploring.
Dim outside light will extend into the entrance zone of the cave, and here you can expect to meet the first cave locals. Not all cave animals are permanent inhabitants. Some will look more familiar to us since they bridge the gap between our two worlds. Important pollinator species bats and birds utilize caves for roosting or hibernation. If dangling bats are noticed, it is best to redirect the light to avoid disturbing them. Also, expect greetings from salamanders and crickets as you enter into their world.
Shining a flashlight on the pathway ahead, you will trek through crawl spaces, scramble over rocks or simply walk upright into different-sized rooms within a single cave. Regardless, expect to get very muddy.
“When I first started caving, I spent a lot of time scooting on my butt or crawling,” says Andrea Jones Martinez of the Asheville Flittermouse Grotto, the oldest cave conservation organization in WNC and a chapter of the National Speleological Society. “I ended up designing a tank top emblazoned with ‘Crawling Not Falling,’ a phrase I use a lot when I cave today.”
Constant internal conditions lead to the slow creation of rock formations, called speleothems. These formations may tower over you like a giant or appear as little straws decoratively dangling from the ceiling. When hit with light, many of the formations glitter from mineral deposits. Always take a few minutes to feel the magic by tracing each room with the light. Many cavers could spend hours just marveling at the speleothems alone, but there is much more to appreciate.
Because of these odd conditions, such as the lack of light and limited airflow, animal residents are specifically tailored to this environment. Deep inside the cave, animals are eyeless and have a colorless appearance. Instead of relying on sight, these creatures have other enhanced senses that aid them in acquiring food. So, do not be fooled; these critters are skilled hunters.
Permanent inhabitants, like fish, salamanders and crayfish, can look like aliens to their surface-dwelling counterparts. Insects play an important role in the food webs of caves, so be prepared to cross paths with quite a few. Crickets, mites, millipedes and even spiders are common in Appalachian caves. They survive by preying on each other, feasting on microbes or enjoying decaying matter left behind by bats. Catching a glimpse of these with the flashlight can feel like you are starring in a sci-fi movie, but remember these harmless friends are more startled by you.
The Appalachian Mountains are 480 million years old, and these wise mountains harbor magic for recreationalists and scientists alike. Through time, thousands of caves were forged and now provide worlds of wonder. “Show caves” are designed for beginners and are great for families. A guided tour at Linville Caverns, in Marion, is a great introduction to this experience.
For more hands-on caving, connecting with a local cave group will ensure proper safety and conservation practices. Litter, food waste, bare-hand contact and wearing hiking gear with dirt from other adventures are all harmful. It is always best to research ways to help protect these areas.
“What’s beneath your feet really needs to be protected because these are little hidden ecosystems full of animals that are unique to the planet,” says Jill Yager, PhD, a research associate at the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian Institute. Consequently, she says, recreationalists must learn to “cave softly” to look after these hidden worlds.
Aimee Shafer is an outreach volunteer with Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured and orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide conservation education. To help, visit AppalachianWild.org.