13 October 2008

A New Yorker and Cave Bugs

Originally drafted 12 October 2008

Today, we pulled traps at Zuni and Abyss Cave. Yesterday, we had planned to pull traps at Zuni Cave, but given the weather conditions, we were unable to do this. So, we had to pull traps at two caves today.

Inspecting an inverted Chrysler New Yorker.

En route to these caves, we came across an old 1970s New Yorker. It was upside down and appeared to have been largely stripped. We walked around it a bit and took some photos. It was rather interesting to encounter this abandoned vehicle in the middle of the monument.

One of many Rhadine beetles found in Zuni Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/ NPS.

This work went incredibly well today. We found numerous crickets and Rhadine beetles in Zuni Cave. We also found several spiders and Psocopterans.

Once done, at Zuni we hiked across the Malpais and arrived at Abyss Cave. This cave is a much colder cave than Zuni. When we were there deploying traps a few days prior, I didn’t think we were going to encounter many arthropods here.

A mummified bat, possibly a Townsend's big-eared bat, found in Zuni Cave.

We did see extensive bat activity throughout this cave. There was a light deposition of guano almost throughout the cave. Also, numerous moth wings and beetle parts littered the cave floor. We also encountered one Townshend’s Big Eared Bat that was apparently in a torpor.

As I expected, we didn’t find many invertebrates within this cave. We encountered mostly crickets and Rhadine beetles.

We then packed up all of our gear, and gravid with an additional 20 temperature/humidity sensors and ~60 traps, we headed back across the Malpais and back to the truck.

Mummified bat pups in Abyss Cave.

We had the luxury of arriving back to camp at a reasonable hour, where we uploaded the data from our data loggers and digital cameras, organized the collected specimens and data sheets, and made preparations for tomorrow.

Popcorn speleothems in Abyss Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Staying Dry on the Malpais

Originally drafted 11 October 2008

A to-be-identified spider in Roots Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Today was an incredibly rainy day on the Monument. This created a little bit of chaos for the team. One valuable lesson that all field scientists must learn is that things do not always go as planned. Thus, one of the most important rules when working in the field is to be prepared for things to go wrong. Secondly, one must have the flexibility to work through and around the problem.

Hiking across the Malpais. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Everything started out smoothly. We broke camp and left the Bandera property by 0830hr. Our plan was to work two caves near the Big Tubes area. These were fairly remote and involved over a one mile hike across numerous lava flows to reach the caves.

First off, the weather was not cooperating with us today. It was a 40% chance of rain on the Malpais. We were discussing when is the last time you heard a forecast involving a 40% chance of rain and then it rained? Well, it rained all day. All team members had Gore-Tex and were prepared for the elements.

However, once we were about half way to the caves, one of our team members (and I won’t mention who) set down a valuable piece of equipment in the forest when we had stopped for a few minutes to remove our Gore-Tex shells – it wasn’t raining at the time, and we were all getting really hot hiking in our jackets.

When this happened, I gave this person my GPS with all the coordinates programmed into the machine, and we programmed the coordinates to the first cave into his GPS. Before we temporarily split company, we doubled-checked the coordinates to make sure they were entered correctly. Upon making this determination, we proceeded to the cave, and at out person tried to follow the GPS track back to where the gear was left.

A rainy self-portrait. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Given thunderstorms, pouring rain, uncomfortably cold temperatures and some navigational issues with the GPS, all of this took us a lot longer than we had anticipated. My around noon, our rendezvous point was about 200 feet from the cave. We went to the cave and started the work.

We were working at Roots Cave today. We visited this cave last year, where we opportunistically collected invertebrates. This time, we were systematically trapping and conducting time constrained searches within this cave in hopes of improving our understanding of this caves biodiversity. Oddly, we found numerous spiders, but not many other organisms, within this cave. We will have to wait to see what our traps yield in four days.

Moving through the back of Roots Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/ NPS.

Our drive out of this area was very interesting to say the least. The roads in this part of the monument are notoriously known for being impassible during inclement weather events. Well, we had a bad weather event today, and the roads were a mess.

I radioed into the ELMA Information Center, and MaryAnna told me the roads were going to be bad. She had been out there earlier in the day, and was very concerned as to whether we would be returning to camp that night, or if we’d be camping where our truck got stuck.

I drove out slowly and cautiously in 4X4 high. We slipped and slide for about five miles. At one point, we almost went off the road. Fortunately, I recovered and we proceeded on.

We made it back to camp in one piece.

The storm that made for a cold and wet day. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Incredibly Grand Moss Gardens

Originally Drafted 10 October 2008

A glimpse of moss from Grand Moss Gardens Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Today, we went to one of the main tourist caves on the monument – Grand Moss Gardens Cave. Our plan was to deploy traps in this cave and recon Train Tunnel Cave.

We deployed traps and opportunistically collected invertebrates within an extensive moss garden. While we were in part of this cave that often contains ice stalactites and stalagmites, we found crickets! While we don’t have the temperature data for this part of the cave yet, I would suspect it was in the mid to low 40s. So, I was rather surprised to find crickets in this area.

Collecting arthropods from Grand Moss Gardens Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Once we successfully deployed our traps at this cave, we spent about 30 minutes searching for invertebrates in the moss gardens. These moss gardens are perhaps the most extensive moss gardens on the Monument. We collected numerous spiders, Psocoptera, mites, Collembola and beetles.

Because this cave is so heavily used by tourists, We are hopeful that our traps will not be disturbed. In three days, we will know how they faired.

One of the numerous tunnels we walk over en route to Grand Moss Gardens Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Into the Abyss

Originally Drafted 09 October 2008

Preparing to enter Abyss Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Today, we surveyed Abyss Cave. This cave is located about two miles from Zuni Cave. This cave is characterized by extensive breakdown on the floor. It involved a lot of scampering over the rocks and large monolithic boulders to navigate through this rather large lava tube.

This rim fragment was found near the entrance of Abyss Cave. Note the hole near the rim. This is likely a hole for placing a leather or yucca fiber handle. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

While there was some evidence of use, this cave was not as extensively used by ancient Americans. In the front part of the cave near the main entrance, we found two areas where the floor had been cleared, and dry-laid stone walls were constructed. We also observed dry-laid stone walls on the surface near the cave.

One of the two cleared areas on the floor of Abyss Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

The team ahead of me received a great treat while deploying traps ahead of me. They entered a side passage directly below a large skylight. When they did, they disturbed a pair of great-horned owls. They were actually able to watch the owls fly over head as they moved to a less disturbed part of the cave.

Once we were done here, we went into town for a few provisions. We decided to eat dinner in town.

While we were getting water, a guy approached Kyle and I and asked if he could help us with our water. He indicated he was a “professional,” and that he did this at the jail. I told him that I appreciated his offer, but we thought we would be able to handle getting our water. He was a very interesting fella.

I saw this juvenile gopher snake (Pituophis melanoleucus) sunning in the road on our return back to camp.

Ancient Use of Zuni Cave

Originally Drafted 08 October 2008

Preparing to set traps for invertebrates in Zuni Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/ NPS.

Possible Anasazi marker stone. It was located at the second entrance of Zuni Cave. We found one of these at the entrance of Roots Cave last year.

Today, we set traps at Zuni Cave. This cave was most impressive. While the extent of biodiversity within this cave remains to be seen, it determined this cave was used extensively by ancient Americans. This cave contained several dry-laid stone walls near each entrance/ skylight. There was a sandstone marker stone at one of the skylight entrances, and there was significant deposition of pottery, stone material (from tool making), a couple of hammer stones, and a metate. All of this suggests this cave was used extensively.

Kyle using a slave flash technique to illuminate a larger extent of the cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

The hike into this area is most impressive. You traverse vast expanses of lava flow; the basalt is loose, rocky and undulating. It is quite easy to lose your footing on this type of material.

In a packrat midden, we found pottery sherds and a corn cobb.

On our return to the truck, our traverse across the Malpais offers spectacular views of Mount Taylor. This is one of my favorite mountains in the southwest. With the exception of last year, I have competed in the Mount Taylor Quadathlon. Viewing this majestic mountain from a far stirs my desires to tackle the mountain in February. I definitely plan on doing it again!

View of Mount Taylor from trail to Zuni Cave.

Return to El Malpais National Monument

Originally Drafted 07 October 2008

The Malpais.

The purpose of my return trip to El Malpais, western New Mexico is to continue my dissertation work. This objective of this work is to inventory cave biodiversity at lava tubes in this Monument. Ultimately, I will be comparing cave biodiversity at this Monument and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, northwestern Arizona. Kyle Voyles, my esteemed colleague and dear friend of the past several years, was able to obtain a 10 day detail to assist with this work. We have worked together and made many discoveries on Grand Canyon-Parashant National Mounument. For details about this work, go to my popular press page on my website.

We met with park officials, obtained data and maps. It was really great to see Kayci and Jim. It had been a year since we last chatted. Among other things, we discussed the project’s objectives, and finished at Park Headquarters around mid-morning. Thereafter, we fueled up the vehicles, and then determine our plan of attack for the day.

Because we started a bit later than I had anticipated, we decided to start at two caves near the Zuni-Acoma Trailhead. This afforded us a much easier and closer access than some of the other caves on the monument.

View of surface from within Zuni Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles/NPS.

Today, we learned a valuable lesson in geographic projection systems and GPS. We reviewed the cave reports before going into the field. However, there was no mention of projection system. If one does not know the projection system that is used (e.g., NAD 27, NAD 83), it can be incredibly difficult to locate a feature as small as a cave on the landscape. We were using NAD 27 (the standard projection for the National Park Service), and the coordinate data for the cave was collected in NAD 83.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of this on the cave reports. When this occurs, there is as much as a 600 foot error. So, we had to spend some time looking for the cave. Despite this spatial error, we were ultimately successful in locating our study site.

A small dark hole, one of many on the Malpais.

This resulted in us arriving at the cave late in the afternoon. Consequently, all we were able to do was lay out our sampling stations within this cave. This took us about two hours to complete. Thereafter, we went to Bandera Ice Caves to camp for the night.

The Bandera folks have been very nice to me over the years. They have permitted my team and I to camp on their property. This is quite a luxury for us because we have a secure camp where we can leave gear, and conduct our work without the worry of activities conducted by those with less than honest intentions.

Once we had set up camp, I drove back to the Ice Caves parking lot to use the wifi connection. This is the only wifi hotspot within 20 miles of here. En route, I saw four beautiful mule deer foraging on a hillside. When I stopped the car, they all froze and looked at me. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me. I got out of the truck, and walked to the back to get my camera. I thought to myself, I bet they are going to think I’m going for a gun. When I walked back to the front of the truck with my camera, they were long gone. I reckon I was right.