Luminescent phenomenon in Webster Cave, KY

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Luminescent phenomenon in Webster Cave, KY

Postby Darklight » Sep 3, 2006 10:11 pm

Today, I was caving alone in the Webster System, KY. That is, I was by myself, but others were ahead and behind. Anyway....

I was caving in the dark, being very familiar with the twists and turns, rocks and mud banks, of this particular stretch of lake trunk passage. After about 15 minutes of this, my eyes were quite dark adapted. Suddenly, I became aware of a light-sensation on my wetsuit gloves and my arms. Small specks of light. They appeared to be attached to my suit, but sometimes appears to "flow" away and behind me as I swam and waded.

At first, I thought perhaps my gloves had phosphorescent paint on them. No. Then I thought maybe it was my eyes playing tricks, like when you rub your eyes in a dark room. Later on, a few minutes, I saw them again. It appeared to manifest itself if I agitated the water around me. Cosmic ray strikes? Unlikely underground, I thought.

After a few hundred more feet, I stopped, and looked down. The water was about chest deep. Still in total darkness, I saw a tiny speck of light directly in front of me. Not moving, and I was able to focus in on the speck. I turned my light on and was able to identify a very small white object, much smaller than the head of a pin, floating in the water. It was the source of the light I had been seeing.

I've never heard of anything such as this before, and had never witnessed it prior to this. My eyes had been very well dark adapted before I noticed it. Could it be chemiluminescence, or something biological?

Any ideas?
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Postby graveleye » Sep 5, 2006 3:17 pm

ever seen foxfire before? I dont think it grows in caves as far as I know though. First time I ever saw it was up at Rocktown. I got out of the tent to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and looked down and thought the moon was shining through the tree leaves.. until I looked up and there was no moon at all. It was one of the coolest things I'd seen though. Next morning I saw that it was this whitish fungus growing on the ground that was making the glow. Maybe some of that is being washed into the cave from somewhere?
I'm no biologist or a botanist, so all my thoughts on the subject are quite uneducated. I'd like to see what you are talking about though.
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Postby Squirrel Girl » Sep 5, 2006 3:28 pm

I saw foxfire in a cave once in Iowa. My caving buddy thought I was going "nuts," but I wasn't. It really was phosphorescent fungi.
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Postby graveleye » Sep 5, 2006 3:49 pm

oh it will blow your mind when you see it... I couldnt wake up the rest of my campers to have a look, so they all thought I was baked when I told them we were surrounded by firefox. Was your firefox deep in a cave or a lot of organic material about?
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Some links on bioluminescent fungi...

Postby John Lovaas » Sep 5, 2006 4:46 pm

When Barb mentioned seeing "foxfire" in Iowa something clicked in my head. I knew that Omphalotus("jack o' lantern") mushrooms glowed in the dark, but you'd probably only see mycelium in the true dark zone of a cave(think of a mushroom as the "flower" of a "plant"- the mycelium).

I had seen a bioluminescent tropical mushrom mycelium being sold for its spectacular light output, but never a North American species.

I went to Tom Volk's website at:

http://tomvolkfungi.net/

(best fungi site out there) and found this:

Most foxfire is caused by Armillaria species. Here's a link to something Elio Schaechter wrote about foxfire in his marvelous book "In the Company of Mushrooms" (Harvard University Press; ISBN: 0674445546).

http://iubio.bio.indiana.edu/cgi-bin/ifetch?netnews+382096931382702+F

Some folks might know one of the Armillaria as the Honey Mushroom. A pretty good edible(for some people- causes gastric distress in others), and a significant tree pathogen.

I just learned(via Tom's website) that he just had a heart transplant- !!! He's quite the documentarian- there's even of picture of himself holding his old heart, packaged in a bag full of formalin.

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Re: Some links on bioluminescent fungi...

Postby Squirrel Girl » Sep 5, 2006 5:18 pm

John Lovaas wrote:When Ara mentioned seeing "foxfire" in Iowa something clicked in my head. I knew that Omphalotus("jack o' lantern") mushrooms glowed in the dark, but you'd probably only see mycelium in the true dark zone of a cave(think of a mushroom as the "flower" of a "plant"- the mycelium).

I don't recall now what that stuff looked like specifically. Certainly there weren't toadstools sticking up, glowing in the dark. It was more like small "spots" on the floor.
Last edited by Squirrel Girl on Sep 5, 2006 6:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Grandpa Caver » Sep 5, 2006 6:22 pm

I think I've seen that stuff! We were removing a small rotten stump to access a small blowing hole. It was late at night and the debris from our efforts was glowing. It was a long time ago but I recall it looked like some kind of mold.

BTW: There turned out to be a good bit of cave in that hole. :woohoo:
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Postby CKB69 » Sep 5, 2006 9:29 pm

Saw enough foxfire at the last TAG cave-in.
I have seen it many other times.
Also seen glow-worms.

Sounds like Chris may have a new phenomenom/species of cave critter.
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Postby KENTO » Sep 5, 2006 10:44 pm

I spent this past weekend doing a non-caving event. My wife and I are a part of a organization that builds new hiking trails in Indiana. We cleared out an old pile of rotting logs to access an area that will soon have a foot bridge across a stream. Camping out on Saturday and Sunday night our group was treated to an incredible display of foxfire. But in addition there were hundreds of some species of Sowbugs crawling around in the debris that had glow in the dark tail areas similar to fireflys. The wood debris was very similar in appearance to your average swallowhole into a cave swallet. Well I guess the question is do these little glow in the dark spots in Webster have legs when examined under a strong magnifying lens. Kento
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Postby John Lovaas » Sep 6, 2006 8:06 am

After KENTO mentioned the sowbugs(isopods), I'm wondering if the 'points of light' Chris saw were mites or iospods that had munched on some Armillaria mycelium, and had a glowy feeling in their gut ;-)

Chris- had there been a recent rain event prior to your visit where you saw the glow? That could easily get the mycelium into the cave(along with the wood it was decomposing).

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Postby Bruce Rogers » Sep 6, 2006 7:14 pm

This phenomenon is not limited to limestone caves or broadleaf woodlands. Lava Beds National Monument sits astride the California-Oregon border in NE California. One of the lava tubes, Golden Dome Cave, has a fairly pervasive lining of at least two different species of actinomycetes that reflect visitor's lights with either a silver or golden hue. Neither of these, however, are luminescent.

In the washed-in soil flooring the cave passages, however, are compounds that have not been studied in any depth (pun intended). Some of these compounds are luminescent, giving off a greenish "foxfire" glow. In the wetter springtime several cavers have remarked that they did see this faint green "glow" along the edges of the lava tube walls. The late, world renown geologist & vulcanologist Dr. Aaron Waters, while mapping these caves of the Monument in 1977 (at age 73), made the first note of the occurrence in that cave.

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Postby Todd » Sep 7, 2006 1:46 pm

The description sounds like a swim I took in the ocean one night with what I was told were comb jellies. They were little blobs of clear jelly, most no bigger than a BB, that would glow when disturbed. Splashing the water or swimming through it would leave ripples and trails of glowing specks. I don't know if there is a similar phenomenon in fresh water.
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