Scientists Enter Steamboat Cave With New Mission, Same Interest

Georgia Tech student Emily Kaufman enters the Sulfur Cave at Steamboat Springs Wednesday, July 27, 2022 in Howelsen Hill to study worms and collect samples for a project. The cave, which has a deadly atmosphere full of poisonous sulfur gas, is home to a rare special worm that has adapted to the harsh environment inside the cave.
John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot and Today

Editor’s Note: Entry into the Sulfur Cave is prohibited and may result in serious damage to someone’s health or death. Members of the public must not enter the cave.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Wearing protective gear and breathing through an oxygen mask, student Darshan Chudasama squeezed into a small crevice in the Sulfur Cave at Howelsen Hill and peeked into a mysterious world illuminated by the headlamp of his helmet.

“I would have stayed there for a good minute,” said Chudasama, a 20-year-old pre-med student at the University of Georgia. “I have never experienced anything like it. There, it’s a different environment wherever you look.

Chudasama was one of four scientists and three research students from Georgia who came to Steamboat Springs to study life inside Howelsen’s famous sulfur cave and collect samples of Limnodrilus sulphurensis, a new species of worm that never sees daylight and thrives in a dark, hostile atmosphere that can kill humans who entered the cave without protective gear.

Among the group was Harry Tuazon, a PhD in bioengineering. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the collective group dynamics of physically entangled biological active matter, such as California blackworms, and hopes to apply this knowledge to robotics.

During this trip, the group, which included Chudasama and Emily Kaufman, an undergraduate neuroscience student at Georgia Tech, hoped to integrate this new species of worm into their project.

Harry Tuazon, a PhD in bioengineering. student at Georgia Tech, checks a sample he collected from the Sulfur Cave Wednesday, July 27, 2022 in Howelsen Hill containing samples he collected as part of a field project. The cave, which has a deadly atmosphere filled with poisonous sulfur gas, is also home to a rare special worm, which has adapted to the harsh environment inside the cave. Tauzon and his colleagues want to study the worms and their behavior as part of their project.
John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot and Today

“What makes them so similar to ours is that they clump together into a ball, and that’s how they survive,” Tuazon said. “We wanted to know why they were doing this in such a toxic environment. Most of the studies on these worms have been done at the individual level, so we’re curious and wanted to see what’s going on with them.

Tuazon said he looks at worms from a biological perspective, studying the collective behavior of organisms, the physics of how they are entangled and their internal pressure to see how these rules could be applied to swarm robotics. .

“Swarm robotics are individual, decentralized robots that don’t need any human interaction controls,” Tuazon explained. “So you program them, and we let them run… Once you program the rules, we just watch and see if (the robots) are going to mimic what we see with these organisms. From there, we could apply practical goals. »

That day, the group was joined by biologist David Steinmann, who works at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

He was the first to discover the worms while exploring the Sulfur Cave in 2007. It took more than 1,000 hours of lab work before the worms were officially recognized as a new species.

Since then, the National Park Service has designated Steamboat Sulfur Cave as Colorado’s last landmark.

Steinmann, an experienced caver who understands the deadly conditions found in the Sulfur Cave, helped guide the group and was excited to return to the cave.

Biologist David Steinmann stands outside the Sulfur Cave Wednesday July 27, 2022 in Howelsen Hill after emerging from a trip below the surface. In 2007, Steinmann, who works at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, discovered a rare worm that has been identified as a new species.
John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot and Today

Scientists in this group were limited to six minutes inside the cave, even with their oxygen tanks and breathing apparatus.

Indeed, breathing the mixture of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide in the cave can kill a person, and just one or two breaths can knock someone out.

The researchers also wore helmets to protect them from the sharp rocks that line the ceiling of the Black Cave, and they wore gloves and coveralls to protect them from bacteria that metabolize hydrogen sulfide and excrete sulfuric acid, which can burn holes in someone’s skin. and through clothes.

Despite the dangers, these scientists, including Steinmann, are drawn to the cave, the mysteries it hides and the scientific promise it offers.

“It’s really fun to see other people interested in making new discoveries and getting involved. It’s kind of like the gift that keeps on giving – this cave,” Steinmann said. “We found worms, and here we are 14 years later, and there are still new discoveries, new research and new paths we are taking.”

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