CentreTerm: Into the Abyss: Cave Ecology

Posted by Centre News in Biology, CentreTerm, News 19 Jan 2016

Cave EcologyCentreTerm, Centre College’s three-week January term, gives students and faculty the opportunity to explore specific subjects more in depth—quite literally. In the course “Into the Abyss: Cave Ecology,” students embark on an adventure that takes them underground to explore the dynamic role that caves  have played in our lives and in the lives of countless other organisms.

The class covers various aspects of cave ecology, including how caves form, how humans have interacted with caves in the past and present, what types of strange adaptations have evolved to facilitate survival in caves and why caves are important habitats to conserve.cave3

Uniquely, a significant portion of the course is based on reading and discussing primary literature, including the reports of actual scientific research going on in caves. This format is used in many graduate school seminars and even senior seminar courses at Centre, but it is unusual in a 200-level class.

“It requires students to learn and think like scientists, which I know is very difficult at first, but also very liberating,” Assistant Professor of Biology Kelly O’Quin explained. “The students don’t have to just take my word on what’s important in cave ecology—they can read the literature and draw their own conclusions.”

Some topics under discussion, like natural selection and nutrient cycling, are abstract and can be difficult concepts for students to learn. Luckily, the students have the chance to apply their knowledge by visiting both Hidden River Cave and Mammoth Cave in southern Kentucky.

“With so many caves in Kentucky, it would be a shame not to allow students to see the topics we’ve discussed for themselves,” O’Quin said. “Although many of my students have seen Mammoth Cave before, I hope they’ll see it differently now that we’ve spent the last several weeks learning about how caves form and how species adapt to this radical environment. And Hidden River Cave will give students the experience of caving first hand—darkness, dirt, guano and all.”cave2

A highlight of the class for O’Quin is the ability to learn new things and share them with the class. Recently he discovered the importance of caves as reservoirs of freshwater—a stunning 93 percent of unfrozen freshwater is found underground in aquifers and caves—and these habitats are extremely susceptible to pollution from the surface. This intensive course is the perfect opportunity to share and discuss such findings.

“I hope the students will be able to see just how important and fragile these ecosystems are and why it’s so important to conserve them,” he concluded.

by Elise L. Murrell
January 19, 2015