A cave is defined as a naturally forming underground cavity. Caves are created by a variety of sources including lava, waves, bacteria and ice. The most common caves are formed by the erosion of surface rock (typically limestone) by rainwater and snow melt which seeps into the ground and absorbs CO2 to form carbonic acid. It takes millions of years for a cave to form, and many continue to increase in size slowly over time.

Did You Know?
The world's longest known cave system, with more than 590 kilometres of underground passageways, is Mammoth Cave, located in Kentucky, USA.

While many people think of caves as dark, mysterious and often frightening, they actually hold a wealth of information for researchers. Caves are continuously being investigated by scientists around the globe because their secrets not only help us to better understand the earth's geological development but also provide information about new plant and animal species. These species, such as undiscovered bacteria and fungi, help researchers develop new medications to fight diseases, new industrial agents to prevent corrosion on buildings and submarines, and even new solutions to help prevent tooth decay.

Did You Know?
The only known cave on earth with a depth greater than 2000 meters is Krubera cave in the Ukraine.

Most people are familiar with stalactites, mineral deposits that hang from the roofs of caves, and stalagmites, deposits that form upwards from the floors of caves. But did you know that there are also cave formations known as "snottites" that are made up of bacterial colonies? Researchers are particularly interested in these formations because even though they are highly acidic (a pH of 0-2), their bacteria have learned how to develop a powerful biofilm to survive in these harsh conditions.

Did You Know?
Snottites were given their name because they have the same consistency as snot - you know, the gross stuff that comes out of your nose when you have a cold.

Cave exploration can be exhilarating but it can also be dangerous. If you decide to explore a cave be sure to plan your trip in advance, always go with others who know the terrain well, and be safely equipped and prepared for emergencies. All caves are highly sensitive ecological habitats, so it is essential that you adhere to the caver's motto: "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints,kill nothing but time."

Learn More!

How Caves Form

Cave Biology

Classification of Caves

Article first published April 20, 2011

CurioCity writer

Article written by a CurioCity expert.

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