Cave Ecosystems

As a cave lover, I have been on a lot of cave tours and during the tour, the cave ecosystem is always something that is discussed. They are very unique and fragile systems. The most important factor in depending on what the environment is like in the cave is what zone you are in. Caves are divided into 3 zones; the entrance, the twilight zone, and the dark zone. In the entrance, there might be green vegetation and there is a lot of light, the temperature is more variable. In the twilight zone, there is less light and minimal plant life. Finally, in the dark zone, there is no plant life and the temperature generally stays the small all year round. In most caves, it’s around 55 degrees Fahrenheit or so. All of the nutrients in this zone have to come from outside the cave.

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Lighthouse Cave in San Salvador, Bahamas, the 1st cave I ever explored

Trogloxenes and Troglobites are also important terms to know for understanding cave ecosystems. A trogloxene is a species who uses caves but they don’t spend their entire life in one. An example of this is bears or raccoons. Bats also fall into this category as they must leave caves to find insects to consume. The material brought in by trogloxenes and their poop are the only resources that troglobites have to use besides debris that may wash into a cave during a storm. In a lot of caves, bat dropping can actually serve as the major source of nutrients. Troglobites spend their entire lives in caves. A lot of caves have unique species of troglobites because they don’t leave and therefore don’t have any other populations to breed with. These species generally have really interesting cave adaptions like lack of eyes or any pigment. Pigment is lost in the cave environment frequently because it doesn’t benefit the organism and is energetically expensive to produce. Common examples of these species are cave crickets, spiders, psuedoscorpions, salamanders, crawfish and more.

Humans can highly impact caves because the troglobites are so used living on such little food. Humans are also naturally drawn to caves and so it’s really rare that you can find a cave in its natural state. In addition, some caves are filled with poisonous gas, and/or require cave diving to access the caves. Paved paths and lights everywhere are common in more commercial caves like Howes Caverns in upstate New York that even has a boat inside the cave. Many popular caves also have a wild cave tour which if you are able-bodied I highly recommend. You get a more genuine experience, and they are not that popular. At one cave in Colorado Bend State Park in Texas, I was the only one on tour and the guide showed me a lot of the species that lived in the cave. Polar caves in New Hampshire offers a really genuine experience without a guide. Just remember as you explore you MIGHT trip over a stalagMITE but be sure to watch your head as the stalagTITES hold TIGHT to the ceiling.

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