Students uncover the secrets of Coon's Labyrinth

Wed, 05 Aug 2015 15:18:00 CDT  — by: Elizabeth Ellis

Crawling on hands and knees in the dark with only headlamps to guide them, students Nancy Lilly and Hali Steinmann, both C’15, went the distance—literally—to survey and map a newly discovered cave on the Domain over the course of the Easter semester.

They dubbed the cave “Coon’s Labyrinth” thanks to its mazelike narrow passageways, and because of the fresh raccoon tracks they would see coming in and out of the cave. “It is not the kind of cave that humans can comfortably go walking around in,” says Steinmann, who graduated in May with an ecology and biodiversity major and a geology minor. “But it is the perfect-size cave for little mammals to make their home.”

Coon’s Labyrinth, which was discovered in spring 2014, was mapped between January and April 2015 using a measuring tape and compass technique as well as a laser device that allowed Lilly and Steinmann to measure hard-to-reach spaces. The cave is 2,415 feet long, with a vertical extent of 7.3 feet, with some passageways being less than three feet in height. The cave stays level throughout, which made the mapping process easier.

hali_nancy‌Steinmann and Lilly’s findings have been submitted to the Tennessee Cave Survey, but don’t expect to find Coon’s Labyrinth as a destination on a map of the Perimeter Trail. The team plans to keep the cave’s location private due to its lack of accessibility for the casual caver and to protect the delicate biology of the 30 species found. One of Steinmann’s roles was to study the biodiversity of the cave-dwelling species, which included at least one raccoon, an abundance of cave crickets, a variety of beetles and salamanders, tri-colored bats, and an affable Allegheny woodrat that let the team take a few photos of it.
Steinmann says guano is the most easily observable source in identifying cave species, since it is found in such abundance and is convenient to transport out of the cave for further research. Some “removals” weren’t entirely voluntary, Lilly says, recalling shaking cave crickets out of her gear after trips.

Lilly and Steinmann hope that Sewanee students will continue researching both known and yet-to-be-discovered caves on the Domain. “Particularly in light of climate change, species are using these caves as homes because they’re climate-controlled,” says Steinmann.  “It’s like a box for biodiversity.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 Sewanee Magazine.

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