Glorious national park 'basement' is science wonderland

Published: Monday, April 7 2014 5:00 p.m. MDT

By studying organic materials inside the caves, scientists are able to learn a lot about life outside the caves and how the local climate has changed over thousands of years.

"Probably drier for sure," Bell said of today's climate. "Not necessarily hotter, but definitely drier."

"The cave ends up being, in a way, like a time capsule or a cemetery where things are brought in by rodents, primarily, and they're deposited in little pockets in the cave," Baker said.

Animal bones and vegetation are typically dragged into the cave by pack rats and placed in a nest known as a midden.

"Probably over hundreds of years they've brought in debris from the outside and made their nest in here," Bell said. "And they cement it together with their urine."

Poking through the pack rat middens, scientists have found evidence of extinct species of rabbits, antelope, birds and plants that once thrived above ground and then vanished after the most recent ice age.

"There again is another indication of climate change (and) how the ecosystem (today) is not capable of sustaining that great a diversity of animals," Bell said.

It's not clear, though, if the long-term climate changes that have been documented in Lehman Caves are related in any way to the global warming of the past two centuries.

"I think we're still learning about the more recent changes in climate, so it's too soon to make any conclusions about that," Baker said.

Lehman Caves is protected as a time capsule now, a record of a million years of nature etched in stone and bone.

Great Basin National Park is about 90 miles west of Delta, just across the Nevada border near Baker. The visitors center is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and offers cave tours seven days a week.

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