The US National Park Service will initiate Monday an excavation into a previously unexplored cave situated in South Dakota’s Black Hills region, which could eventually offer valuable insight for researchers about the region’s climate history.
The cave, named Persistence Cave, had been discovered in 2004 by a worker for South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park, but the NPS has kept it secret until now in a bid to avoid possible amateur exploration and contamination of the site.
The NPS excavation will be accompanied by ateam of researchers led by Jim Mead, a professor at the Eastern Tennessee University. The scientists are mostly interested in sediment samples and animal bones, which could offer new details about the species inhabiting the region in its past. Preliminary tests already executed on samples from the mouth’s cave have found remains from three species that have never been known to inhabit the Black Hills area – the platygonus, pika and pine marten.
This in turn raises questions about past climate, for example how did a pika – a species now found only in cold and mountainous area – make its way into Black Hills. It would point towards either the area having a colder environment in the past, or the species being previously adapted to warmer conditions.
“In reconstructing the past environments of the Black Hills, it’s nice to have a number of different points,” Mead said. “What we’re trying to do, centered through the Mammoth site, is to understand essentially the Ice Age environmental change through time.”
These fossils and the ones which will be excavated in the future will be studied alongside those from the nearby Hot Springs Mammoth Site – a prehistoric beast graveyard discovered in the 70s. With fossils there dating back 26,000 years, the researchers will be able to compare them with the 11,000 year-old fossils discovered at the mouth of Persistence Cave and observe the way the climate and environment of the area has changed during the last glacial period.
To protect the excavation efforts, the NPS and Wind Cave National Park staff have agreed not to publicly disclose the location of the cave’s mouth. However, some officials believe that Persistence might prove to be link with the nearby Wind Cave through a passage probably blocked with sediment or inaccessible to humans, explaining how it managed to stay hidden even though its neighboring cave has been explored for over a century.