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The Incredible Animal Life of Tennessee’s Uncharted Cave Systems

It has often been said in recent years that humans know more about our moon than we do about the expanses of our own oceans. Marine biologists speculate that an incredible number of undiscovered species may still exist within parts of the deep ocean, with room for somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 or more new large marine species alone.

While our oceans may remain among the most mysterious habitats yet to be explored, they are not the only “final frontier” in our search for new forms of terrestrial life. In their exhaustive book Caving: The Sierra Club Guide to Spelunking, authors Lane and Peggy Larson make the case for why more and more people are being drawn to the underground: technological improvements have broadened our ability to descend safely into the depths below us, and with those technologies, renewed interest in what new things we may learn while there.

“In the last thirty years the art of cave exploration has been revolutionized by radical improvements in caving equipment and the adoption of new techniques,” the Larsons wrote, “many of these adapted from mountaineering. These improvements have spawned a vital explosion of cave exploration and scientific investigation. Suddenly man has dropped deeper and crawled farther underground in natural caverns, and done so in greater safety, than he has ever before een privilege to accomplish—and there are greater depths, longer passages, and scientific questions begging answers.”

Thanks to modern cinema, horror films might leave a number of us thinking the kinds of scientific questions we’ll face could also involve gruesome salamander-like cavern dwellers, and other hideous, monstrous things that dwell below.

Truth be known, there probably are hundreds—if not thousands—of undiscovered species below us. But rather than being ghastly humanoids, or gigantic worms that feed on human sacrificial offerings, the majority of these species are likely to be minuscule, with many small enough to fit on a thumbnail.

Zoologist David Withers examining some Sequatchie caddisflies found near Sequatchie Cave.

Zoologist David Withers examining some Sequatchie caddisflies found near Sequatchie Cave.

In 2004, the Washington Post spoke with Tennessee’s state zoologist, David Withers, about the incredible biodiversity below his state alone. With more caves than any other state, Tennessee boasts more than 8,600 known cavern systems, constituting the largest and most complex underground system in the country, which extends into the earth below at least a half dozen neighboring states.

The Washington Post article noted the incredible biodiversity expected to exist within the caverns:

“Most of these caves have never been surveyed for their biodiversity, and some scientific experts estimate that as many as 1,000 species are yet to be discovered. Sheltered until recently from the outside world and with few opportunities to escape, a variety of largely unknown species of cave flora and fauna have evolved out of sight over millions of years.”

If one could imagine the sorts of creatures that might exist in such uninviting places, which consist mostly of beetles, millipedes, and other creepy-crawly critters, it might be easy to understand why few take up such pursuits, apart from the endomologists among us. Granted, there are occasional reports of other things from time to time, which may do more to fulfill the imaginations of the cinema enthusiasts aforementioned, rather than the collection bottles of scientists seeking the minutiae our world has to offer in the way of biology.

In the quest to trace the uncharted regions of our world, and our hope for the discovery of new species where they may thrive, all too often we set our sights on those larger things… even if by “larger” we still mean small enough to fit inside a kettle. There are indeed far smaller members of the undiscovered animal world, and in far-more out of the way places; we cannot overlook the earth-dwellers in our survey of all creatures, both great, and small.


Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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