Scientists enter Steamboat cave with new mission, same interest
Editor’s note: Entering the Sulphur Cave is prohibited and can result in serious harm to someone’s health or death. Members of the public should not enter the cave.
Clad in protective clothing and breathing through an oxygen mask, college student Darshan Chudasama squeezed through a small crevice of the Sulphur Cave at Howelsen Hill and peeked into a mysterious world lit by the headlamp on his helmet.
“I would have stayed in there for a good minute,” said Chudasama, a 20- year-old, pre-medical student at the University of Georgia. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. There, it’s a different environment wherever you look.”
Chudasama was one of four scientists and three research students from Georgia who came to Steamboat Springs to study the life inside Howelsen’s famous Sulphur Cave and collect samples of Limnodrilus sulphurensis, a new species of worm that never sees the light of day and thrives in a dark, hostile atmosphere that can kill humans who entered the cave without protective gear.
Among the group was Harry Tuazon, a bioengineering Ph.D. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology who’s studying the collective group dynamics of physically entangled biological active matter, such as California Blackworms, and hoping to apply that knowledge to robotics.
During this trip, the group, which included Chudasama and Emily Kaufman, an undergraduate neuroscience student at Georgia Tech, was hoping to incorporate this new species of worm into their project.
“What makes them so similar to ours is that they clump up in a ball, and that’s how they survive,” Tuazon said. “We were interested in why they’re doing this in such a toxic environment. Most of the studies on these worms have been done on the individual level, so we’re curious and wanted to see what’s going on with them.”
Tuazon said he looks at the worms from a biological perspective, studying the collective behavior of the organisms, the physics of how they are entangled and their internal pressure to see how those rules could be applied to swarm robotics.
“Swarm robotics are individual, decentralized robots that don’t need any human interaction control at all,” Tuazon explained. “So you program them, and we’ll let them run … Once you program the rules, we just kind of watch and see if (the robots) are going to mimic what we see with these organisms. From there, we could apply some practical purposes.”
On this day, the group was joined by biologist David Steinmann, who works at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
He was the first one to discover the worms while exploring the Sulphur Cave back in 2007. It took more than 1,000 hours of lab work before the worms were officially determined to be a new species.
Since then, the National Parks Service has designated the Steamboat Sulphur Cave as Colorado’s latest landmark.
Steinmann, an experienced spelunker who understands the deadly conditions found in the Sulphur Cave, helped guide the group and was excited to get back into the cave again.
The scientists in this group were limited to six minutes inside the cave even with their oxygen tanks and breathing apparatus.
That’s because breathing in the mix of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the cave can kill a person, and just one or two breaths can knock someone out.
The researchers also wore hardhats to protect them from the sharp rocks that line the ceiling of the pitch-black cave, and they wore gloves and coveralls to protect them from bacteria that metabolizes hydrogen sulfide and excretes sulfuric acid, which can burn holes on someone’s skin and through clothing.
Despite the dangers, these scientists, including Steinmann, are drawn to the cave, the mysteries it hides and the scientific promise is offers.
“It’s really fun to have other people finding interest in making new discoveries and being involved. It’s sort of like the gift that keeps giving — this cave,” Steinmann said. “We found worms, and here we are 14 years later, and there are still new discoveries and new research and new avenues that we’re taking.”
John F. Russell is the business reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach him, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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