In my last post, I told of the refrigerator malfunction that brought me to the cabins of the National Speleological Society in the Kentucky woods. I had come with my thesis advisor and another student, to collect a fresh supply of beetles from the Flint-Mammoth caves for my master’s research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
But before I captured any beetles, I experienced bats.
Perspiring in winter clothing in the extreme summer heat, we drove up to our first cave entrance. The Speleological Society had installed a padlocked iron door to the cave, with circular cutouts to allow bats to fly in and out, which a bat did right in front of me. My thesis advisor unlocked and opened the door, and out flew a couple more bats. They were nothing like the scary Hallowe’en pictures. These bats were light grayish brown, and their bodies, rather than their wings, were what we saw.
Inside the cave, the year-round 50o F temperature prevailed, a welcome relief. But I was completely taken up with staring at the arching, rocky walls, some smooth, some crenelated, some with natural shelves jutting out. The overall colors were gray, amber, and pink. Wearing miners’ helmets with lights on their fronts, we followed natural paths, and human-made stairs from cavern to cavern. At one point, my professor had us all turn off our lights to experience the dark of the cave. It was a strange experience: I kept waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, expecting to be able to see dimly, as at night. But, of course, in a cave that never happens, because there is absolutely no light at all. So all the creatures we encountered in there lived in cold pitch black except when humans came around.
Then we started collecting beetles in one cavern after another. Hanging from the ceilings were sleeping bats, no bigger than a child’s fist. I found these little bats so charming: when they sleep, they allow their body temperatures to cool; so when they wake, they can barely move. The cavern ceilings were often low, and I could walk right up to a sleeping bat and watch it. Each bat woke up when I approached with my lighted helmet. Slowly, the bat would begin to move its body and wings, gradually speeding up until it finally had generated enough heat to be able to move freely. Now it would unfold its wings, stretching and flapping a bit, until finally, the bat would fly off.
Let me know how you like cave lore. I’ll post more about Kentucky cave life next time.