Cory Holliday has been a bit of a media star the past few weeks, as his effort to create an artificial bat cave to combat white-nose syndrome has appeared in The New York Times, on National Public Radio and in our own series of blogs, among many others.
He’d rather be underground.
Holliday runs the Conservancy’s cave and karst program in Tennessee. In his nine years on the job, he’s conducted biological inventories deep beneath the earth’s surface – often finding bizarre life forms and even new species.
And now he’s on the front lines in the fight against white-nose syndrome, a disease killing millions of bats.
Caught Between a Cave Wall and a Hard Place
Cave exploration remains one of the world’s great frontiers: There’s the very real possibility of finding places never seen by another human. Beautiful waterfalls, underground rivers and stunning stalagmites all await cave scientists like Cory Holliday.
But there’s another side of caves. If you lose your light source, your eyes will never adjust to the total darkness – a fact that even a visitor to a tourist cave knows when the guide turns out the lights.
Caves also tend to have very narrow, tight passages. Holliday remembers one particularly narrow path he had to negotiate. At just eleven inches high, the passage required Holliday to take a deep breath, exhale, then shimmy through as far as he could.
He would need stop for a breath in the middle of the passage. He’d take another breath, exhale again and then shimmy, fast, to the end.
“You couldn’t make it through if you had breath in your lungs,” he says with a laugh. “It was that tight. If you got in the middle and started hyperventilating, you’d be in trouble. Serious trouble.”
Holliday has indeed been stuck in passages a few times. “Luckily I’ve always been with others who could push or pull me out,” he says. “I’m a big guy for a caver. I can be a gauge on trips. If I can make it through, others probably can, too.”
Unlike many cave scientists, Holliday didn’t start out as a recreational caver. He began his career with the Conservancy working in prairie restoration, then – in his words – fell into work with cave conservation.
He spent time learning from cave experts and reading everything he could. And he explored caves. “A lot of the taxonomic stuff and other information you can’t learn in class anyway,” he says.
He also made mistakes. “I went in a lot of caves by myself,” he says. “I would be deep into a cave and realize that if something happened right now, nobody would know where I was. I was hours from another human being. Today, I won’t go without two others. Your perspective on what is acceptable risk changes when you get older and have kids.”
Life in the Dark
Holliday’s first focus was on cave inventories – recording the life that lives in some of the most inaccessible and unknown places on earth. Tennessee has 10,000 caves, more than any other state, so there were plenty of places for expeditions.
He immediately found new species and complex ecosystems, but it wasn’t easy.
“Caves are cold, dark, nutrient-poor environments,” Holliday says. “Nothing is common. You’ve got to hunt to find anything alive in a cave.”
Bats, of course, roost in caves by the thousands. Wood rats – which collect items from outside and store them in large piles called middens – live near entrances.
But deep underground life gets even more interesting.
To deal with the dark, cave dwellers develop many adaptations: They’re often blind and colorless. Because caves are so nutrient poor, animals have very low metabolisms. They move in what looks like slow motion. Some cave crayfish can live to 70 years.
Strange blind salamanders swim in underground rivers. Tiny beetles, springtails and millipedes live on what debris they can find. “When I was doing these inventories, it seemed every cave I visited we found new species,” Holliday says. “Every cave is different. Because so little is known about caves, you’re always learning something new.”
Holliday even has a millipede species named after him. “It’s a one-inch colorless millipede known from only one cave,” he says. “It’s the coolest millipede you’ve never seen.”
When white-nose syndrome reached Tennessee, Holliday’s work shifted from these biological inventories to documenting the presence of the disease in caves. It was grim work, and spurred him to do something about it. From that desire came the artificial bat cave.
“You can hear the emotion in Cory’s voice when he calls and reports what is happening in the caves,” says Gina Hancock, the state director for the Conservancy in Tennessee. “It is not just scientific, it’s emotional. To see them dying, or to see them disappear from a cave, is an emotional experience.”
Nearly every day from December through March, Holliday will be in caves documenting white-nose syndrome. And he’ll be closely monitoring the artificial bat cave to see if this experiment can make a difference for bats.
“Caves are such interesting places to explore, but that work is on hold,” he says. “We need to find bright spots in dealing with this disease. I fell in love with bats through this job. They’re mysterious, intelligent creatures. Now we need to find a way to protect them. It’s a risk, but I’m very excited and hopeful.”
Photo: Cory Holliday in the artificial bat cave. Credit: Stephen Alvarez.