The University of Arizona

Cave Microbes Exhibit Now Open at Kartchner Caverns

By Monique Garcia for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, November 19, 2013
UA scientists have discovered diverse communities of bacteria, fungi and archaea on the surface of Kartchner stalactites that live off of nutrients from the cave drip water and  contribute to the growth of the cave formations through calcite precipitation. (Photo by Antje Legatzki)
UA scientists have discovered diverse communities of bacteria, fungi and archaea on the surface of Kartchner stalactites that live off of nutrients from the cave drip water and contribute to the growth of the cave formations through calcite precipitation. (Photo by Antje Legatzki)

A kiosk has been created to educate the public about cave microbes.

Actively growing helectites and soda straws crowd the walls of Kartchner Caverns in areas where drip water percolates into the cave.  (Photo courtesy of Arizona State Park Service)
Actively growing helectites and soda straws crowd the walls of Kartchner Caverns in areas where drip water percolates into the cave. (Photo courtesy of Arizona State Park Service)

A National Science Foundation-funded exhibit, "Journey into the World of Microbes," is now open in the Discovery Center at Kartchner Caverns, offering the public a closer look at the microscopic organisms that live in the caves.

Principal investigators from the University of Arizona's School of Plant Sciences and the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science – both in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – developed the exhibit's scientific content while UA Biomedical Communications created the computer program that accompanies it. The kiosk was built by the Arizona State Parks service.

Kartchner Caverns is one of Arizona's southernmost state parks. Its limestone caverns create a unique ecological environment that is atypical to the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Although the caverns are largely uninhabited, there is a wide range of microorganisms living in the cave ecosystem. The kiosk was created to educate the public about these cave microbes, including some that are currently being studied by UA researchers.

"The kiosk is the center of our outreach effort to the general public. It incorporates all aspects of our National Science Foundation-funded research and presents it in a format that is creatively educational and easily understood," said Barry Pryor, professor of plant pathology and mycology in the School of Plant Sciences. "We believe the kiosk has content that all age groups can learn from, and we hope everyone walks away with a little more understanding of microbiology and cave ecology."

The exhibit features two interactive touch screen computers with programs that encourage visitors to learn about microorganisms and how they are studied in the cave, along with their effects on the cave’s ecosystem. The two touch screens run at the same time with an accompanying flat screen overhead. Both screens contain four “pretend you’re a scientist” learning modules that allow visitors to move through the material at their own pace. 

The four modules include:

  • What are Microbes
  • Microbial "CSI"
  • Bio-speleo-genesis – What's that?
  • Preserving the Cave – Don't touch!

The target audience is sixth-graders and above, although younger kids are still encouraged to visit the kiosk because the prompts are fairly easy to follow. As a permanent addition to the Karthner Caverns Discovery Center, the kiosk will operate during normal park hours and is included in the regular park entrance fee.

For more information on the exhibit and Kartchner Caverns visit http://azstateparks.com/parks/kaca.