PROGRAM: Genetics & Astrobiology
AUTHOR: Daniel Grossman
I had heard of "astrobiology" before I began working on "Genetics & Astrobiology," but I always thought it was just a few flaky researchers day-dreaming about extra-terrestrial life. It didn't take long to realize there was much more to it: well-formed theories and careful scientific investigations performed by top-notch scientists. I also discovered that much of the research doesn't take place in the comfort of a nice warm university or government lab.
Halfway to Carlsbad, New Mexico, from Albuquerque I began to get the nagging suspicion that some astrobiology research might even be unpleasant if not life-threatening-even for journalist visitors.
I was riding in the front seat of Jim Werker's old pickup truck. His wife, Val, was in the back. Jim grew up outside Albuquerque and began caving as child in the hills near his home (he prefers "caving" to "spelunking"). As an engineer at the Sandia National Laboratories, Jim spent much of his career outfitting nuclear weapons tests in Nevada with test equipment. In his free time, he has become a crack cave scout and a leading advocate of cave conservation.
On this trip, he was the guide (or "caver extraordinaire," as researcher Penelope Boston told me) and the designer of a new gadget for cutting core samples from rock. He had been described to me with good cause as looking "like a piece of tanned leather with blue eyes sticking out of it and a Buddy Holly hairdo."
As we wended our way through pine forests and rocky deserts, the conversation wended its way to caves...and snakes. I had never thought of it before I was about to climb into my first cave, but caves and snakes-especially the ones with fangs and venom-have an affinity for each other. Judging from the stories they told, Jim and Val have seen their share of subterranean serpents and the like.
In one tale, a rattlesnake was blocking their way into a cave so the explorers sat down to wait for it to catch a bat or some such thing and move on. But as luck would have it they chose to rest in a scorpion nest.
Though the thought of running into a rattlesnake was beginning to rattle me, Jim said that with all his experience, he's learned how to handle them. At this point, piping up from the back seat, Val reminded Jim of the time he caught a rattler in a cave entrance, stuffed it in a bag and began to climb out with the viper in his backpack. Halfway out, dangling from a rope, he felt something tickling his neck: the snake had escaped. That time, Jim acknowledged, he was "a bit nervous." Fortunately, when he leaned over, the unwanted companion just slithered off.
It was not till the following day that we actually arrived at our destination: Spider Cave. Though I'm not by squeamish by nature, I was apprehensive by this time. Spider Cave, it turns out, has a mascot, the snake they call Bubba. Jim told me not to worry because Bubba is a black rattlesnake, one of the more docile varieties.
"They'll warn you before they bite," he assured me. I never saw the rattler because Jim scared it into a crevice. But I probably crawled within a yard of its deadly fangs.
It never crossed my mind to ask where Spider Cave got its name, but not long after I shimmied into the cavern's mouth, I learned the reason.
Not far from the entrance is a small, domed chamber. Pushing head-first with my feet-with my back flat against the smooth cave floor-I got a worm's-eye view of the room's ceiling. There, illuminated above me in the yellow hues of my headlamp, were dozens of daddy longlegs. Jim said sometimes there were so many of these bugs here that the ceiling literally writhes with their slender bodies. I was happy I came by on a slow day.
After braving the horrors of the entrance, the rest of the trip was anticlimactic. Just a lot of pushing, pulling, and squeezing. I had far less claustrophobia than I had anticipated. For much of the underground journey we could walk, sometimes standing erect, sometimes hunched over.
It was novel to be in a place so totally dark and so completely quiet. It wasn't long before I was comfortable surrounded by rock 100 feet below ground. And then my only worry was returning to the surface and my next encounter with Bubba.