What is the exploration of caves called?

Spelunking is the recreational sport of exploring caves, but no one really calls it spelunking anymore. The acceptable term -- and the one we'll use here -- is caving.

Caving, like scuba diving or rock climbing, is as adventurous as you want it to be. There are family-friendly caves you can stroll through on a paved path. And there are others that require hundreds of feet of face-in-the-dirt crawling and rappelling down bottomless shafts.

There are thousands of caves in the United States, and more than 100 are open to the public for guided tours and expeditions [source: National Caves Association]. More than 200 U.S. caving clubs offer organized excursions to remote caves, teach advanced caving skills and participate in cave conservation.

Humans have been drawn to caves since ancient times. Modern archeologists have found evidence that ancient people viewed caves as sacred locations in which to carry out important religious rites. In prehistoric times, caves were attractive dwellings that offered stable interior temperatures and protection from harsh weather and other humans. In more recent history, caves have served as hiding places for stashed treasure, ideal environments for aging cheese and wine, and excellent natural labs for scientific discovery.

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Where is Carlsbad Caverns located?

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, area of the Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern New Mexico, U.S., near the base of the Guadalupe Mountains (a segment of the Sacramento Mountains). It was established in 1923 as a national monument, designated a national park in 1930, and proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Beneath the park, which has a surface area of 73 square miles (189 square km), are 83 individual caves, including Carlsbad Cavern, the park’s namesake. The park also includes Rattlesnake Springs, a small enclave about 5 miles (8 km) to the southeast.

About 250 million years ago, a shallow sea ringed by a vast, horseshoe-shaped limestone reef covered the area. This formation, called Capitan Reef, is found in southeastern New Mexico and western Texas and includes Guadalupe Mountains National Park, just southwest of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. After the sea evaporated, the constant dripping of acidic groundwater carved out the massive underground chambers, converted limestone to gypsum, and formed enormous stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave deposits ranging from the delicate to the bizarre.

Carlsbad Cavern has a labyrinth of underground chambers, including one of the largest ever discovered. The total length of the rooms and passages is still unknown, but the explored part of the main cavern is more than 30 miles (48 km) long, of which 3 miles (5 km) are open to visitors. Of the three major levels, the deepest is 1,027 feet (313 metres) belowground. Visitors can walk or take an elevator to the 755-foot (230-metre) level and explore the Big Room, which measures about 2,000 feet (610 metres) long and 1,100 feet (335 metres) wide at its greatest extents and has a ceiling that arches 255 feet (78 metres) above the floor. Found within are the Giant Dome, a stalagmite 62 feet (19 metres) tall; the Twin Domes, only slightly smaller, superbly proportioned and delicately fluted; and the so-called Bottomless Pit, which is some 700 feet (210 metres) deep. During the summer a colony of about one million Mexican free-tailed bats inhabits a part of the caverns known as Bat Cave; each evening at sunset they swarm out of the cave’s entrance to feed in the surrounding area.

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What do you call a person who studies caves?

The study of caves is called speleology. A scientist who studies them is a speleologist. Speleology is both a niche area of geoscience and a broad area of study that looks at many aspects of caves. There is much we can learn from these curious geological formations, from how they formed to which zoological species inhabit them, to their geological profile, examining how stalagmites and stalactites form, their internal hydrology (the profile and processes of water bodies within caves). They will also be interested in caves as habitats for paleontological and anthropological remains.

Caves are often a microcosm of niche ecology, therefore those with a professional interest in the biological sciences - zoology, botany, mycology, entomology might be drawn to speleology too in examining the native plants and animal species that grow and thrive within a cave system. In recent years, researchers have found plants that can grow in very low light levels. Understanding these plants may shed light on a variety of interrelated issues such as plant genetics.

Caves are also important sources of mineral deposits. Speleologists might work to mine these resources or examine how they might have come to form there. Speleologists might also work as cartographers, developing maps for caves used for recreational or tourist use - devise the safest route through a cave, or come up with ways to ensure they are safe. They work mostly in caves but will spend their time between offices and labs and the cave systems that they study.

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Why cave fishes are blind?

Blind cave fish compensate for their lack of sight by having a more sensitive lateral line system which detects vibrations or changes in pressure in the water. The lateral line is a specialized sensory organ found in fish. It is a canal system running just under the skin along each side of the fish’s body.

The blind cave fish has skin covered with a layer of scales arranged in head-to-tail pattern, similar to shingles on a roof. These scales play a protective role for the fish and reduce drag when swimming. Fish also secrete a layer of mucus that covers their body, further reducing drag in the water. The mucus also helps prevent infection by serving as a barrier to microorganisms and also makes the fish slippery and difficult for predators to catch.

Blind cave fish compensate for their lack of sight by having a more sensitive lateral line system which detects vibrations or changes in pressure in the water. The lateral line is a specialized sensory organ found in fish. It is a canal system running just under the skin along each side of the fish’s body. This canal is lined with special receptors that are quite sensitive to vibrations and water currents and thus it is an “extended sense of touch” allowing the blind cave fish to detect obstacles at a distance. Using this heightened sense helps blind cave fish find food and avoid bumping into obstacles.

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When stalactites and stalagmites touch, they can form what kind of structure?

When a stalactite touches a stalagmite it forms a column. Usually, stalactites and stalagmites in caves are formed by calcite, less frequently by aragonite, and rarely by gypsum. Fifty-four other cave minerals are known to form rare stalactites.

Sometimes calcite stalactites or stalagmites are overgrown by aragonite crystals. This is due to precipitation of calcite that raises the ratio of magnesium to calcium in the solution enough that aragonite becomes stable.

Rarely, elongated single crystals or twins of calcite are vertically oriented and look like stalactites, but in fact are not stalactites because they are not formed by dripping or flowing water and don't have hollow channels inside. These elongated crystals are formed from water films on their surface.

The internal structure of stalactites and stalagmites across their growth axis usually consists of concentric rings around the hollow channel. These rings contain different amounts of clay and other inclusions, and reflect drier and wetter periods. Clay rings reflect hiatuses of the growth of the sample. Stalagmites may be formed for periods ranging from a few hundreds years up to one million years. Stalactites and stalagmites in caves have such great variety of shapes, forms, and color that each of them is unique in appearance. At the same time, their growth rates are so slow that once broken, they cannot recover during a human life span of time. Thus, stalactites and stalagmites are considered natural heritage objects and are protected by law in most countries, and their collection, mining, and selling is prohibited.

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