Research Inspiration from Mammoth Cave

Research Inspiration from Mammoth Cave

Research inspiration at Mammoth Cave National Park

Over the past two months, I’ve been able to participate in a variety of very exciting projects which have helped fuel my love for Mammoth Cave National Park. Most of these have been research projects, from bird surveys to spider collecting to pre-historic art surveys, and I am as inspired as ever. As a biologist, I remain fascinated by the creatures around us, even those which are too small to see with the naked eye. 

Twice in the past month, I’ve been able to assist in the gathering of Phanetta subterranea, a cave spider with a very wide geographic range. This species is found throughout the southeast region of the United States. From Illinois to Georgia, Phanetta inhabits cave systems, typically not entering the deep cave. Phanetta subterranea is the only species in its genus and due to its range, and other factors, researchers are investigating their genetic variation! So, employees and interns were asked to help gather a few to accomplish this!

On these trips, we’ve aimed to collect Phanetta individuals in speciose caves, though this came with a challenge. This species gets to be about 2 mm large, which is about the width of two credit cards! Due to their small size, they’re nearly impossible to identify in the field! This led to the collection of other small spiders which don’t belong to the Phanetta genus. As we crawl around in the caves, flip over rocks, and wait to see any tiny movement from a spider-looking
creature, I feel invigorated. Even with the challenge of not knowing what species I was scooping into my collection vial; I knew we would find some… and that we did! 

Phanetta subterranea under the microscope
Phanetta subterranea under the microscope

Phanetta, with their vestigial eyes, are another great example of a cave adapted creature (check out my last blog post on cave critters), but the question of how this species has expanded across the southeast remains unanswered. I have absolutely loved being able to participate in this project, and every project, and I remain stunned with more questions than there are answers for. I view this as a good sign and feel inspired to continue asking questions about the unknown here in Mammoth Cave National Park! 


I also saw some fossils on this trip, and honestly most trips into the caves, but this one was from a chondrichthyan! These fossils were deposited about 350 million years ago and enrich Mammoth Cave National Park, by making this park an important paleontology site!  

Isabel pointing at a fossil on the ceiling of a cave.
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