Speleology is the scientific study of caves and other karst features, as well as their make-up, structure, physical properties, history, life forms, and the processes by which they form (speleogenesis) and change over time (speleomorphology). The term speleology is also sometimes applied to the recreational activity of exploring caves, but this is more properly known as caving or potholing, or (not usually by participants) by the uncommon American term spelunking. Speleology and caving are often connected, as the physical skills required for in situ study are the same.
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century the scientific value of caves was considered only in its contribution to other branches of science, and cave studies were considered part of the larger disciplines of geography, geology or archaeology. Very little cave-specific study was undertaken prior to the work of Édouard-Alfred Martel (1859–1938), the 'father of modern speleology', who through his extensive and well-publicised cave explorations introduced in France the concept of speleology as a distinct area of study. In 1895 Martel founded the Société de Spéléologie, the first organization devoted to cave science in the world.
The growth of speleology is directly linked with that of the sport of caving, both because of the stimulation of public interest and awareness, and the fact that most speleological field-work has been conducted by sport cavers.
Cave geology, hydrogeology and biology
The creation of an accurate, detailed map is one of the most common technical activities undertaken within a cave. Cave maps, called surveys, can be used to compare caves to each other by length, depth and volume, may reveal clues on speleogenesis, provide a spatial reference for further scientific study, and assist visitors with route-finding.
Caves provide a home for many unique biota. Cave ecologies are very diverse, and not sharply distinct from surface habitats. Generally however, the deeper the cave becomes, the more rarefied the ecology.
Cave environments fall into three general categories:
- the parts of caves that are in communication with surface soils through cracks and rock seams, groundwater seepage, and root protrusion.
- the threshold regions near cave mouths that extend to the last penetration of sunlight.
- or "true" cave environments. These can be in regular contact with the surface via wind and underground rivers, or the migration of animals, or can be almost entirely isolated. Deep hypogean environments can host autonomous ecologies whose primary source of energy is not sunlight, but chemical energy liberated from limestone and other minerals by chemoautotrophic bacteria.
Cave organisms fall into three basic classes:
|Troglobites||cave dwellers||are obligatory cavernicoles, specialized for cave life. Some can leave caves for short periods, and may complete parts of their life cycles above ground, but cannot live their entire lives outside of a cave environment. Examples include chemotrophic bacteria, some species of flatworms, glowworms, collembola, and blindfish.|
|Troglophiles||cave lovers||can live part or all of their lives in caves, but can also complete a life cycle in appropriate environments on the surface. Examples include cave crickets, bats, millipedes, pseudoscorpions and spiders.|
|Trogloxenes||cave guests||frequents caves, and may require caves for a portion of its life cycle, but must return to the surface (or a parahypogean zone) for at least some portion of its life. Hibernating reptiles and mammals are the most widely recognized examples.|
There are also so-called accidental trogloxenes which are surface organisms that enter caves for no survival reason. Some may even be troglophobes (“cave haters”), which cannot survive in caves for any extended period. Examples include deer which fell through a sinkhole, frogs swept into a cave by a flash flood, etc.
The two factors that limit cave ecologies are generally energy and nutrients. To some degree moisture is always available in actively forming Karst caves. Cut off from the sunlight and steady deposition of plant detritus, caves are poor habitats in comparison with wet areas on the surface. The majority of energy in cave environments comes from the surplus of the ecosystems outside. One major source of energy and nutrients in caves is dung from trogloxenes, the majority of which is deposited by bats. Other sources are mentioned above.
Cave ecosystems are very fragile. Because of their rarity and position in the ecosystem they are threatened by a large number of human activities. Dam construction, limestone quarrying, water pollution and logging are just some of the disasters that can devastate or destroy underground biological communities.
Other areas of cave science
- National Speleological Society
- The Virtual Cave, an online guide to speleothems
- Biospeleology; The Biology of Caves, Karst, and Groundwater, by Texas Natural Science Center, the University of Texas at Austin and the Missouri Department of Conservation
- Speleogenesis Network, a communication platform for physical speleology and karst science research
- National Cave Research and Protection Organization, India
- cave-biology.org Cave biology, biospeleology in India
- Cave Biota; an evolving "webumentary", sponsored by Hoosier National Forest and Indiana Karst Conservancy
- IJS – Home Page (International Journal of Speleology) (in English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish)
- Caving News, Daily news and articles on caves, caving, speleology, karst and other information for cavers.