Geologist to Discuss Scientific Findings in World's Fifth Longest Cave

Monday, October 11, 1999

A public lecture on scientific discoveries made in New Mexico’s Lechuguilla Cave, the fifth longest cave in the world, will be presented by Kim Cunningham, former director of scientific research for Lechuguilla Cave, on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at The University of Tulsa.

The lecture will be presented at 6 p.m. in Room M-1 of Keplinger Hall, Fifth and Harvard, home of TU’s College of Engineering and Natural Sciences.

Cunningham, director of international geology and exploration for Geo-Microbial Technologies in Ochelata, is a geologist who helped write a Congressional bill to protect the cave. He says Lechuguilla is “now known as the world’s most beautiful and scientifically fascinating speleological resource.”

The extent of Lechuguilla Cave, part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, was known only after cavers began exploring it in 1984. Large walking passages were discovered on May 26, 1986. The National Park Service says explorers have mapped more than 100 miles of passages. Cave depth is 1,567 feet, making it the third longest cave in the United States.

Cunningham, who worked for 17 years for the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, said that as Lechuguilla’s director of scientific research from 1989 to 1993, he obtained funding for more in-cave research projects than has been conducted in any cave anywhere in the world. Study topics include the discovery of unique indigenous microbiology that has become the focus of cancer and NASA-sponsored research.

The Park Service says rare, chemolithoautotrophic bacteria are believed to occur in the cave. These bacteria feed on sulfur, iron, and manganese minerals and may assist in enlarging the cave and determining the shapes of some unusual formations. Inside the cave, five separate geologic formations can be observed. Access to the cave is limited to approved scientific researchers, survey and exploration teams, and management-related trips.