An expedition into “virgin” cave passages found at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico has discovered an isolated pool of liquid believed to have never before been seen by humans.
Carlsbad Caverns posted news of the discovery this week on Facebook, calling the site “completely pristine” and speculating bacteria in the water “evolved entirely without human presence.”
A photo shows the pool surrounded by white frosted rock, and filled with an odd-looking liquid that resembles thick lime yogurt.
“This pool has been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years and had never seen light before that day,” said Rodney Horrocks, Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
It was found 700 feet below the entrance of Lechuguilla Cave, a “sister cave” in the back country of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (The park covers 46,766 acres.) It was discovered in 1993, but not entered until October, he said. Lechuguilla is one of the 10 longest caves in the world., the National Park Service says.
Geoscientist Max Wisshak, who led the expedition, told McClatchy News the color of the water is an optical illusion: It’s actually “crystal clear,” he said in an email.
The discovery — made in a cavern 328 feet in length — is important because the pool has been isolated from human contact for hundreds of thousands of years, experts say.
“Such untouched pools are scientifically important because water samples are relatively free of contaminants and the microbial organisms that may live in those pools are only those that belong there,” Wisshak said.
“Contamination can occur from the surface above the cave, but in case of Lechuguilla Cave, that’s not a big issue, since it is situated in a well-protected wilderness area. Contamination can also occur via aerosols in the air. However, a newly discovered pool in Lechuguilla Cave is about as pristine as it gets.”
Horrocks says microbiologists have found new species of microbes when sampling pools in Lechuguilla Cave and the latest discovery could bring more surprises.
An exact age for the formation has not been determined, but it’s still growing, Horrocks said. “So, the top layer dates to this year and the ones below are older. These formations typically grow and stop growing for varying periods of time, so the layers on the bottom can be very old,” he said.
There are several more such pools in the passage, the largest of which has been named “Lake of Liquid Sky,” Horrocks said.
Wisshak is publishing research on the unique barite crystals in Lechuguilla Cave. He has also applied for grant funding to return to the site for a broader study of the crystals. Both the pool and the cave passage contain barite, which is rarely found in caves, and that needs to be scientifically investigated, he says.
The cave exploration, which included “numerous rope drops,” mapped 1.3 miles of passages during the October expedition, about 4,344 feet of which were new discoveries. No signs of life “visible to the naked eye” were found in the new passages.
However, “we found bat skeletons, thousands of years old, in some places in the cave,” Wisshak said.