Cave Facts

The terms cave and cavern are not always precisely used. A cave is a natural underground cavity. A cavern is a connected system of caves and passages. Caves and caverns are often found in the sides of cliffs and hills.

Cave Terms

Speleology, one of the newest of the sciences, is the study of caves. One who studies Speleology is known as a speleologist (from the Greek words spelaion, meaning cave, and logos, meaning study). A person who explores caves or caverns is known as a spelunker. Spelunking is the act of exploring a cave or cavern.

Solutional caves are found in rocks which can be dissolved by a weak natural acid, carbonic acid. This acid is formed when rainwater mixes with carbon dioxide in the upper layers of the soil. Squire Boone Caverns is a solutional cave.

Bats are very beneficial to Earth’s ecosystem. They consume vast amounts of insects which would otherwise cost farmers
and foresters billions of dollars in lost crops every year. Some bats eat mosquitoes, which are known disease carriers.
Bats also pollinate  flowers and disperse seeds in forests
and deserts.

Bat guano is an important nutrient source for cave life,
containing hundreds of species of essential bacteria.
Some of these bacteria produce enzymes that 
could potentially be used to detoxify
industrial wastes and produce 
gasohol and antibiotics.

Click here for more facts about bats.

Soda Straw Stalactites

Speleothem is the scientific term for a cave formation. Speleothems can be found in many shapes and sizes, depending on how they were formed. Many speleothems are named for their resemblance to man-made or natural objects.

Soda Straws (shown above) are thin-walled, hollow tubes about a quarter inch in diameter. They form as water runs through their centers and deposits rings of calcite around the tips of the formations.

Stalactites grow down from the ceiling and form as mineral layers are deposited by water flowing over the outside of soda straw formations. The word stalactite is derived from the Greek word stalasso, which means “to drip.” Stalactites form after the centers of the hollow soda straws become plugged. The photo below left shows stalactites forming on the ceiling of Squire Boone Caverns. Though they are small, it’s possible they are hundreds of years old.

Stalagmites (below right) grow up from the floor where mineral laden water drips from above. Stalagmites are often, but not always, found beneath stalactites. They have flat or rounded tops as compared to the carrot shaped stalactites.

Stalagmites
Stalagmites
Columns

Columns are formed when stalactites and stalagmites grow together or when one of them grows all the way to the floor or ceiling.

Draperies form where drops of mineral-laden water trickle down the undersides of inclined ceilings, leaving deposits in lines which fold and curl as if they were drapes of curtains.

The photo above shows examples of both these formations. The draperies can be seen to the right of the column.

Flowstone
Stalagmites

Flowstone (above and right) forms where films of water flow over walls, floors and formations, depositing sheets of calcium carbonate like icing. It forms in thin layers, but tends to become rounded as it gets thicker. Impurities in the calcite may give a variety of colors to these formations. The reddish areas in the photo at right were likely caused by iron.

Cave Coral

Cave Coral or Popcorn (left) is irregular clusters or rough knobs of crystalline calcium carbonate. They build up on walls and existing formations as mineral-laden water seeps through the pores of the rocks to the outer surface, where it feeds the growing crystal faces.

Less often, popcorn formations are caused by surface flow, splashing water or condensation.

Rimstone Dams

Rimstone dams (or gours) are calcite or other mineral barriers on cave floors. These dams are wall-shaped formations that impound small pools of water or, in some cases, dam cave streams. The beautiful rimstone dam above is located in Squire Boone Caverns, where rushing streams carry more than a million gallons of water each day through the passageways.

Helictites (below) are contorted speleothems that seem to defy gravity. A helictite starts out as a tiny stalactite, but the direction of the end of the straw begins to wander, curve or twist like a corkscrew. Their shapes are the result of capillary pressure acting on tiny water droplets. (Capillary action is the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without the assistance of, and in opposition to, external forces like gravity.) Mineral-rich water flows through the central capillary channel with pressure strong enough to cause sideways or upward growth.

Helictites are perhaps the most delicate of cave formations. Their myriad forms have been described as resembling ribbons, saws, rods, butterflies, fishtails, hands, curly-fries and clumps of worms.

Helictites
White Helictites

This is only a small sampling of all the great things there are to learn about caves. Check out your local library or the
National Caves Association web site for more information.