As they delve into the many wonders of Spec, spec-scientists must reach deeper into the earth, literally, to make new discoveries. A recent spelunking expedition in the heart of the island of Aotearoa (New Zealand), has unearthed several complex cave systems on both the North and South Island. Geologists were pleasantly surprised to find the infamous Waitomo Caves of the North Island in Spec nearly identical to their RL counterpart. These limestone caves sport amazing geological formations, such as the stalactites, stalagmites, and several other unique structures. Also, several freshwater creeks and brooks cut through the caverns and fill up small underground lakes, teaming with life.
One bizarre and unique feature of the Waitomo caves are the glowworms, (in Spec, p-Arachnocampa) quite similar to the RL glowworms of the same cave system. p-Archnocampa can be found in other caves, but glowworm populations are unusually dense in Waitomo. Also know as fungus gnats, these hardy insects can be found on the ceiling and walls, but from a human's point of view, these nondescript adults pale in comparison to their children..
Fungus gnats spend most of their life in their "glowworm" larval stage. The grub-like larvae glow with the help of the chemical luciferin, which can be "burned" with oxygen to produce water, carbon dioxide, and light---the exact opposite of photosynthesis. When thousand of glowworms accumulate on the walls, they can turn the dark caves into a biological Las Vegas.
Around themselves, the larvae build a mucus structure, which sticks to the cave walls. Dangling from this sac are several tendrils of sticky silk, each almost a meter in length. The glowworms glow to attract small insects to their threads who find the greenish glow almost irresistible. When a moth or cricket gets caught in the thread, the vibrations alert the larvae, who immediately reels in its glowing line and devours its prey. Some larger species have even been seen angling for cavefish.
Glowworms start their lives from a batch of about 150 eggs, plastered to a cave wall by an adult. The eggs hatch, releasing several small glowing larvae into the cave. After a year the larvae enter the dormant pupa stage. Two weeks go by, and the mosquito-sized adult will emerge from the pupa. Both the pupae and the adult can also glow to a certain degree.
Since the Waitomo caves are shielded from the sun, they lack any form of plant life and cave critters must get their energy from other sources. Some of the energy necessary for life in deep caves comes via the water. Organic matter is carried into the caves from the outside world through groundwater and small creeks. Most of the caves' organic detritus, however, comes from the green-masked balaclava (Speleornis waitomoi) a fairly typical balaclava-bird that roosts in the caves at night, covering the rocky floor with nutritious guano. This excrement, rich in nitrates, supports a thriving community of fungus and insect life, which in turn are eaten by larger organisms. Like many other sub-terranian environments, the ecology caves of Waitomo are based upon guano.
Unlike the bats with whom the balaclavas live, green-masks do not echolocate. The balaclava-birds do have a keen sense of hearing, however, and can follow the cries of the bats to find their way through the caves' chambers. The birds are further aided in their search by the many small quill-like feathers on their head and faces. These feathers work like a cat's whiskers, allowing the green-mask to feel the air around them and sense disturbances before the birds crash into them. Living on an island with few terrestrial predators, these balaclava-birds build their nests (made of mud, spit, and glowworm fibers) either on the ground or very close to it.
Another creature of these caves is the fung-tongue, p-Sphenodon luminosa. This odd tuatara is troglodyte, a permanent resident of the cave system (as opposed to the bats and green-masks, which are trogloxenes). Fung-tongues are generally two inches long and like most tuataras, have extremely low metabolisms. Fung-tongues move very slowly, and require very little nourishment. When the fung-tongue does decide to eat, however, it employs a method of hunting that is truly astounding. On the tip of its tongue, there thrives a growth of bioluminescent fungus. The tuatara uses its tongue as a lure, catch cave insects in much the same way as the glowworms above its head.
The fung-tongue shares a complex symbiotic relationship with the green-mask balaclava-birds with which it shares the cave floor. The little reptiles are often seen freeing the green-masks of parasites, many of which are have become immune to the twitiavian's secretions. Fung-tounges make their homes around the green-masks' ground-level nests and feed upon the insects that have colonized the birds' natal chamber. The service provided by the fung-tongue is of tremendous importance to the birds, since otherwise nesting on the verminous cave floor would be impossible.
The fung-tounge thus enables the balaclava-birds to find a nest away from the bat-filled vaults above, but the relationship does not end there. In the vastness and emptiness of the caves, the chances of the small mature male fung-tongue finding a mature female fung-tongue are surprisingly low. To get around this problem, the males secrete small mucus sac, filled with sperm and nutrients, to attach to the downy belly of a green-mask. The nutrients allow the sperm to survive for about a week, during which time the flying green-mask has a much greater chance of finding a female than does the male tuatara, himself. A female tuatara, perhaps smelling the sperm sack, will rub up against the passing bird (which then receives a de-lousing treatment) and fertilize her eggs.
Aside from the fung-tounges and green-masks, the Waitomo caves quite vital, with different species of fungus growing throughout the chambers. The elegant cave flower (distantly related to the RL genus Pleurotus) is actually a large mushroom-like fungus that grows in damp areas. Insects are the most common animals found in the caves, such as the albino cave ants, giant crickets, and of course the glowworms. The underground lakes and creeks are squirming with life. Several species of cave fish thrive in grottos, feeding on small crustaceans, and the species of blind amphibians, often hard to find. Bats carpet the ceilings with their bodies and the floors with their guano, but their population density is rather lower than a similar environment in RL. The reasons for this are currently under investigation.
Not only do the Waitomo caves harbor a fascinating array of life, they have proven quite helpful to paleontology, the study of dead creatures. Every now and then, a creature from the outside will accidentally stumble into a cave, get lost, and die. Thanks to the extreme isolation of the body, large scavengers can't scatter the bones, and so the Waitomo caves are dotted with the not-quite-fossilized skeletons of animals dating from as far back as the Pleistocene. A now extinct giant-gobbler has even been discovered and described from specimens found in these caves, and a wealth of new material shows us how living species have changed over time. Dark as the Waitomo caverns are, it seems they can still shed light on the world above.