|by Wade Coggeshall • September 12, 2006|
Fifth-grade students at Laura Hose Elementary got a crash course in caves Tuesday morning.
Kunga Choden, a Wabash College sophomore majoring in biology, spent part of his summer researching commercial caves in Southern Indiana. The study was made in conjunction with Present Indiana, a program funded by the Lilly Endowment where students study the cultural and natural wonders of the state. Wabash students undertook eight other projects this summer under the same umbrella, including studies on Hoosier-born author Kurt Vonnegut and Indiana's historic covered bridges.
As a youth, Choden spent a lot of time exploring the wild caves in his native India. There were many in the mountains near his school. Students would use them to form study groups, and often encountered animals in them such as wolves.
Exploring the limestone caves of Southern Indiana seemed a natural project for him to tackle. His PowerPoint presentation to three fifth-grade Hose classrooms helped prepare those students for the class' annual field trip Sept. 27-29 to McCormick's Creek in Spencer, Ind. It's a trip Isabel Arvin started in 1967.
The fifth-graders will tour Wolf Cave, which is much smaller than the sprawling underground caverns of Southern Indiana. Many parts of Wolf Cave require its visitors to crawl on their hands and knees.
The caves Choden toured were Blue Springs Cavern in Bedford, Wyandotte Cave near Leavenworth, Marengo Cave and Squire Boone Caverns. Blue Springs has arguably one of the country's largest underground rivers. Marengo, discovered in 1883 by a brother and sister, is considered a national landmark.
Students learned a clever way to remember a stalactite, which is an icicle-shaped mineral deposit that hangs from cave ceilings. Choden said it hangs "tite," one of many cave formations molded over thousands of years. The oil from skin can stop the growth of such formations by changing its structure. Discussion of one such formation, cave bacon, named for its curvy resemblance to bacon, elicited a smattering of chuckles in each classroom.
Other interesting facts included types of animals commonly found in caves, including millipedes and crawfish. The fish have no eyes and are albino because it's completely dark. Longer appendages and keener senses substitute. Choden had to dispel the myth that bats are evil, bloodsucking vampires. They're actually quite useful in regards to eating mosquitoes. Their population, however, is dwindling enough to consider them endangered.
More than just a science lesson on caves, Choden used his presentation for a social lesson too. The bat population is decreasing in part because of pollution. That extends to our underground water supply.
"There's a hundred times more water in the ground than in all the world's rivers and lakes," Choden said. "Caves must be preserved to help scientists study past environments and climatic change."
There's also the archeological significance. Native Americans explored and lived in caves, leaving behind writings, drawings and other artifacts. Even though most of the students raised their hands when Choden asked if they had ever been in a cave, he said much remains to learn about these unusual structures beneath the earth's surface.
"Caves," he said, "are the last human frontier left to explore."
Coggeshall is a reporter for the Crawfordsville Journal Review.