12 March 2009

The 2009 Cactus Canyon Expedition was a Success!

11 March 2009 -- Drafted in the Holiday Inn, St. George and in FLG

Image: Core team flag photo. From left to right, Doc, me, Voyles and Spatta. Credit: Ty Spatta.

Today, we had four objectives, (1) pull traps from Cliff Cave, (2) retrieve AnaBat from Cliff Cave, (3) pull traps in River Styx Cave, and (4) make it back to civilization in safely.

Before we wrapped up the biodiversity work, we packed up most of our gear, and policed base camp to be sure we had everything. So, once we returned, we'd be ready to place the packs on our backs and get the heck out of Dodge.

Image: I'm jugging up to Cliff Cave. Credit: Ty Spatta.

Kyle and I went to Cliff Cave, while Ty went to River Styx by himself. We didn't like sending Ty into a cave by himself. However, we established a plan so we would know exactly where he was and when he would return to base camp. Ty has been in this cave numerous times. We knew exactly where he was going to be within this cave. He planned to be at River Styx for two hours, and would radio base camp once he was out of the cave. So, we knew that if we didn't hear back from him in 2.5hr, we would go find him.

Image: In the entrance of Cliff Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles.

Kyle and I decided it would be best of Doc remained on stand-by at base camp -- just in case something went wrong at Cliff Cave. While Doc was on stand-by, he filtered enough water to get us through the day and out of the canyon.

Kyle and I headed up to Cliff Cave to pull traps and finish up the work up there. I still needed to inventory the ecology of the cave. This is a really neat cave. It has two main rooms, and two crawls that are too tight for normal humans to navigate. The first room is just beyond the entrance. There were quite a few critters in this first room. We encountered numerous springtails and beetle larvae in our traps. In the second room (which is connected to the first room via a tight crawl), we found crickets, tenebrionid beetles and a few beetle larvae. Interestingly, we didn't capture one springtail in this room. Also of interest, is that we did not encounter one predator during our site visit.

Image: Doc filtering water. Credit: Ty Spatta.

Also, the second room contained a considerable paleontological deposition. We encountered numerous large bones. At first, I thought a few of them may be human. However, we did not have a smoking gun, so to speak. We did not encounter human teeth or a jawbone with clearly distinguishable human tooth sockets. However, we did find some lithic material related to stone-tool making, as well as two small broken quartz rocks. While we cannot definitively state the bones were human, we can at least confidently state that Native Americans used this cave -- perhaps as a kill processing site. Oddly however, it must have been used tens of thousands of years ago, when the canyon was not as incised, or perhaps there was an entrance that no longer exists from above. In any event, it would be difficult, if not downright impossible, for folks to carry their kill up a 60 foot rock face and into a cave.

Image: Entering data from our traps. Credit: Kyle Voyles.

We state here that we did not disturb the subsurface. We searched and evaluated the bones and materials on the surface only. So, I'd suggest this cave still holds many secrets.

Ty was successful with his objectives as well. He pulled all 16 of our Madonna Cone traps. Interestingly, out of all the traps deployed, we captured only one Rhadine beetle. This perhaps further shores up my hypothesis that the entrance of River Styx cave is likely the only place to support arthropods.

Image: Ty collecting arthropods in River Styx Cave. He was by himself...so, is this a staged shot?! Credit: Ty Spatta.

This cave is massive and characterized by crystal clear pools and little observable nutrients on the cave floors and along the cave's numerous speleothems. The clarity of the water suggests there are no nutrients in the water, and thus it is unlikely there will be critters in these pools.

Image: An example of the low opacity of the pools in River Styx Cave. Credit: Ty Spatta.

I've sampled cave pools in Belize, the water was dark brown to black. It was loaded with nutrients and contained numerous aquatic organisms including several stygobites. Secondly, the lack of any observable detritus in other regions of the cave further supported my hypothesis.

Image: High cotton! We trapped 14 tenebrionid beetles in one trap within Cliff Cave. Credit: Kyle Voyles.

Kyle and I were the first to arrive back at base camp. Upon our arrival, I continued to pack my gear, and then Ty arrived. Kyle and Ty fixed lunch, while Doc and I were getting antsy to get the heck out of the canyon.

Image: Packing it up! Credit: Ty Spatta.

We then hiked out! However, we weren't "out of the cave" just yet.

This is the saying that I have on expedition. "We're not out of the cave, until we're out of the cave." I learned this back in 2007 while Kyle and I were working in a cave on the Arizona Strip. This cave is one of the loci for our new millipede genus. Kyle and I were there to collect copepods from sulfur pools at the back of this cave. This was the last task we had to do on our trip. Once done, I was headed back to Flagstaff. So, as I was walking and belly-crawling through this cave I started thinking..."I'm going to see my girlfriend, have a hot shower, sleep in my bed, and have a real meal." I was already out of the cave and in Flagstaff. I came to the end of the crawl, stood up full force and hit my head on the ceiling so hard that I almost knocked myself out. The brim of my helmet actually cut the bridge of my nose. Kyle quickly approached and I could hear him speaking but it was all mumbling...about a minute passed, and then I heard, "Dude! Are you okay?!" Looking back on it, it was rather funny, but it wasn't funny when it happened.

So, hence forth, I never consider an expedition to be over until we return to civilization. At which time, we are "out of the cave." For us, this meant once we see the city skyline of Mesquite, Nevada, we are "out of the cave."

We still had to hike out, which may take up to two hours, and then we have to drive back to Mesquite. Reaching civilization will take us another three hours. So, we were at least five hours from getting out of the cave.

Image: Sorting all arthropod specimens and entering data. Credit: Ty Spatta.

Fortunately, we hiked out of the canyon safely and we arrived back to civilization in one piece. We made it home safe and sound. The mission was a success! All mission critical objectives were met. We sampled cave-dwelling arthropods at five caves, collected AnaBat data at five caves, and mapped two caves.

Image: Kyle and I processing the specimens collected from this expedition. Credit: Ty Spatta.

There is another aspect of this project that Kyle and I really liked. Once we arrived back in St. George, I spent two days there with Kyle wrapping up all the loose ends. Ty helped us sort all the arthropods and prepare them for shipment. We also entered all the arthropod data into a spreadsheet. Kyle uploaded and organized all the microclimate data. So, everything was done. On 16 March, the bugs will be sent to our taxonomic specialists for species-level identifications.

This was a great project. Kyle and I both learned a lot, and we feel our team did as well. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the trip, and we've heard back from several team members indicating they had a lot of fun. So, we are very pleased with these results.

Image: Out of the cave, and feasting on prime rib and NY strip at the Casa Blanca Casino steak house. We were all desperately needing a shower, but none of us cared. The food was awesome. However, we've been "just adding water" to our food for the past nine days -- so a properly cooked shoe may have been a gormet meal to us. Credit: our waiter.

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