Wonderland of human fish and snotties

Encyclopedia of Caves and Karst Science
July 22, 2005

Proteus anguinus anguinus is popularly known as the blind salamander, or "human fish", because of its pink skin. It is the sole species in the genus Proteus and is found only in the caves of a restricted region of Italy and the Balkans. The adult form has a narrow body, three digits on the front legs, two digits on the rear, three pairs of outer gills, two pairs of gill slits, a disproportionately long head and reduced eyes, and is resistant to starvation. In folklore, Proteus was considered to be the offspring of dragons.

Areas of karst in southern China have so many closely packed limestone pinnacles that they are known as shilin , which translates as stone forest. The most spectacular example is in Lunan Country, Yunnan Province, where some pinnacles of bare rock reach 50m high and the first tourist trails were laid out in 1614 during the Ming Dynasty.

Baron Johann Weichard Valvasor, 1641-93, was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and published 13 descriptions of caves in that region, which he explored between 1678 and 1689. His plan of Podpeyška jama is only the second known printed map of a natural cave. He is widely recognised as the first true speleologist.

"Snotties" are rubbery white deposits that resemble stalactites, have the texture of mucous and drip sulphuric acid. They are colonies of diverse microbes that thrive in intense levels of atmospheric hydrogen sulphide within the Cueva de Villa Luz, southern Mexico, by using the heat energy released from oxidisation in the same way that plants use light for photosynthesis.

I could go on. The Encyclopedia of Caves and Karst Science does so for more than 900 pages - it has more than 371 entries, averaging 1,000 words apiece, copious black-and-white illustrations and a section of impressive colour plates. In short, and at great length, everything that one could possibly wish to know about caves and karst science - or at least everything that I wish to know and a great deal more - is here. This is the first such encyclopaedia, designed for reference both by "subject specialists who wish to obtain information from outside their immediate area of knowledge and by non-specialists who wish to gain an understanding of the diverse and multidisciplinary nature of caves and karst science". It will succeed admirably for both parties.

My own subject specialism is archaeology, and I found the numerous entries on this theme accurate, well written and quite detailed. The coverage is comprehensive, involving entries on all the cave-related archaeological issues I can imagine, although my list of cave sites meriting individual treatment rather than being covered in regional summaries differs, perhaps inevitably, from that of the editor. The absence of reference to Blombos Cave - the remarkable South African site that has provided the earliest known symbolic artefacts - can be excused, I guess, by the relative recentness of those discoveries and the considerable time it must have taken the editor and publisher to produce this volume.

"Archaeology, art in caves and palaeontology", with 29 entries, is one of eight themes covered in the encyclopaedia; others include "Biospeleology" (78 entries), "Conservation and management" (19 entries), "Geoscience" (78 entries) and, of course, "Caves and karst regions" (75 entries). I sampled these as a non-specialist and can only assume that their coverage is as well balanced and comprehensive as that of archaeology; the editor certainly appears to have pursued a rigorous process of selection of both entries and authors.

The coverage is indeed exhaustive - I had not expected to find entries on "Extraterrestrial caves", "Highways on karst" and "Stamps and postcards".

Some entries go into considerable technical depth; all begin in a highly readable fashion and most are illustrated with photographs or line drawings. Those concerning cave faunas - everything from bats and amphibians to spiders, mites and snotties - were, for me, the most fascinating and opened up an almost magical world of evolutionary and ecological complexity. Those dealing with regions of karst - "terrain with distinctive hydrology and landforms arising from the combination of high rock solubility and well-developed solution channel (secondary) porosity underground" - were equally interesting, describing some of the most intriguing landscapes on the planet.

Although the encyclopaedia is structured around a series of themes, the entries are placed in alphabetical order. This is ideal for browsing as successive entries can take one from "Mulu, Sarawak" to "Music in and about caves" and then "Myriapodia (centipedes and millipedes)", or from "Diving in caves" to "Dolines" and then "Draenen, Ogof Draenen, Wales". Seventeen pages describing "crustacea" are found sandwiched between the Crimea and Cuba. The alphabetic structure may be less convenient for those using the encyclopaedia as a resource for a specific theme. It has, however, a thematic list of entries at the beginning and an excellent index at the back - I had no trouble rapidly locating the potentially obscure archaeological items that attract me.

I was also impressed by the presence not only of "works cited" but also "further reading" for each entry, often including reference to useful websites, and the use of "see also..." sections at the end of each entry. The large number of photographs provides the volume with a very high "browsability quotient" as many of these are of dramatic rock formations and cave interiors; these certainly led me to read entries that I would have otherwise bypassed. As I worked through the volume, I became increasingly envious of a certain Tony Waltham, who seems to have taken more than his fair share of the most spectacular pictures from all corners of the world.

The obvious question about encyclopaedias today is whether we still need them in print - why not simply publish them as websites? This would provide many advantages in keeping bibliographies and entries updated so that new discoveries such as Blombos Cave could be included. There are also disadvantages, and I remain firmly on the hard copy side of the argument.

Perhaps this reflects my archaeological bent - the fact that I like material culture.

Although it weighs more than 3kg, I heaved this encyclopaedia from my study to the sitting room; I read in the hammock and in bed (but not in the bath, owing to the risk of massive water displacement should I drop it); sometimes I read it for several hours, on other occasions for just a few minutes in those tiny gaps of spare time while kettles are boiling or computers are booting up. I have no doubt that I will be consulting it for the rest of my life. It is a superb resource for anyone undertaking research from undergraduate to the very highest levels of scholarship.

To conclude, I'd like to share a few interesting facts and figures that I have recently learnt. Falls account for 61 per cent of the deaths and injuries experience by British cavers; while 12 per cent are accounted for by drowning and 21 per cent by bad air. The deepest cave in the world is Gouffre Mirolda in France at 1,733m; the longest is the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky, US, at 556.9km. The first cine film showing a cave was taken by Harry Short and released in Britain on October 22, 1896. The earliest known illustrations of caves on postcards are Kuhstall in Saxony (used in 1887), Einhornhohle in the Harz mountains (1890) and the Blue Grotto in Capri (1893).

Steven Mithen is professor of early prehistory, Reading University.

Encyclopedia of Caves and Karst Science

Editor - John Gunn
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 902
Price - £120.00
ISBN - 1 57958 399 7

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