Writers on the Range: Of skinny red worms and Olympic skiers
Writers on the Range
It’s so bizarre, it’s almost hard to believe: In downtown Steamboat Springs in western Colorado, on a local ski hill, there’s a small cave that’s become famous among some scientists. The red worms living inside are unique on land, leading researchers to speculate that they might resemble the kind of life existing on the planet Mars.
Last fall, a team of scientists, veteran cave explorers and a photographer gathered near the 100,000 year-old cave’s stinky opening below the ski jumps on Howelsen Hill, a location more famously known as home turf for much of America’s Nordic combined team, including 2010 Olympic silver medalist Johnny Spillane. Giant ventilation pumps whirred, pulling rotten-egg-smelling hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide out of the narrow cave so that the members of the Sulphur Cave Expedition could work their way in.
For the fourth time in two years, they braved the acidic atmosphere that burns holes through T-shirts and turns pennies black inside pockets. Undaunted by the slime coating every crevice, the 50-degree chill and the dark cramped spaces, the explorers were in search of something special: Worms.
Sulphur Cave’s acidic spring waters hold squirming clumps of blood-red worms unlike any that have ever been discovered on land before. The team first collected the worms during its initial expedition in 2007. After finding them again a year later, one of the team leaders, Norman Pace, a University of Colorado distinguished professor in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, began to suspect their biological significance. He’d previously studied the hydrogen sulfide-eating tubeworms that live along hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The worms in this cave appeared to be thriving in similarly harsh conditions.
But it wasn’t the worms that first drew scientific attention to Sulphur Cave. Veteran caver Mike Frazier, visiting Steamboat Springs on a ski trip a few years ago, observed “snottites” hanging inside the narrow entrance. Snottites is the official scientific name for soft colonies of microorganisms that bear a remarkable resemblance to the gooey nose drippings for which they are named. Snottites are so rare – there are only four other known occurrences in the world – that Frazier and his scientific buddies quickly obtained a smattering of university and museum grants and assembled the first Sulphur Cave Expedition in 2007.
As the expedition members slithered into Sulphur Cave again last fall, Fred Luiszer, a University of Colorado, Boulder, geologist and speleologist, stopped at the entrance to monitor gas concentrations. He measured hydrogen sulfide at 325 parts per million; the federal standard for maximum daily exposure is 10 parts per million. Carbon dioxide stood at 20.8 percent, which is four times the level that will kill you. Team members donned respirators before venturing to the back of the cave.
Photographer Norman Thompson captured Sulphur Cave’s beauty: The intricate masses of biological life on the cave walls resemble the folds of brain coral, lacy ceiling gypsum crystals glitter like starbursts and small yellowish stalactites and stalagmites cling to the walls and floor. The photographer also documented team members squeezing through dark claustrophobic spaces encrusted with biological goo: “It looked like about 10 people had thrown up on them. And that’s how they smelled, too.”
The team collected more of the pencil-lead-thin worms, and a month later, DNA analysis confirmed their genetic uniqueness. Sulphur Cave’s worms may be the first hydrogen-sulfide metabolizing organisms ever discovered on land, where they’ll be much easier to study than 14,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.
This 180 foot-long, often-overlooked cave gives scientists an easily accessible location to learn about the kind of environment, and possibly the organisms, that may exist on Mars or the moons of Jupiter.
“On other planets, those animals are probably going to be bacteria or bacteria-like, and they’re probably going to be living in environments similar to this,” Luiszer says. “By studying those things here on Earth, it’s going to be a lot easier for (scientists) to figure out where to look for life and what kind of equipment and instruments we’ll need.”
Team member Hazel Barton, co-star of the IMAX film “Journey Into Amazing Caves,” took some of the light-sensitive worms back to her Northern Kentucky University lab for study. She’s hoping to determine exactly how the worms, or possibly their bacteria, draw hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to live on.
“This is the only habitat for (these worms),” she says. “The next closest thing is diving two miles to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This is a world-class site.” To local skiers in Steamboat Springs, though, it’s still just a nondescript hazard marker along a nice slide down the hill.
Jennie Lay is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes near Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
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