Nature & Science
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Guadalupe Mountains, a mountain range that runs from west Texas into southeastern New Mexico. Elevations within the park rise from 3,595 feet (1,095 meters) in the lowlands to 6,520 feet (1,987 meters) atop the escarpment. Although there are scattered woodlands in higher elevations, the park is primarily a variety of grassland and desert shrubland habitats.
The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest and wettest of the North American deserts. Most of the desert is in Mexico, but the park is one of the few places where the desert is preserved and protected. The park averages more than 14.4 in (36.6 cm) of annual precipitation and has a semi-arid, continental climate with mild winters, warm summers with plenty of rain. The average annual temperature is 63F (19C).
The park supports a diverse ecosystem, including habitat for many plants and animals that are at the geographic limits of their ranges. For example, the ponderosa pine reaches its extreme eastern limit here and several species of reptiles are at the edges of their distributions.
Current checklists for park fauna identify 67 species of mammals (including 17 species of bats), 357 species of birds, 55 different reptiles and amphibians, 5 species of fish, and an incomplete list of over 600 insects, with more identified each year. The park's list of vascular plants includes more than 900 species and subspecies.
Underlying the rugged desert landscape is one of the most important geologic resources in the United States. The Guadalupe Mountains are the uplifted portion of an ancient reef that thrived along the edge of an inland sea more than 250 million years ago during Permian time. Preserved in the rocks are the bodies of sponges, algae, snails, nautilus, and many other animals that lived in this ancient sea. Scientists from all over the world visit the park each year to study the structure and fauna of the reef.
The most famous of all the geologic features in the park are the caves. Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 119 limestone caves, the most famous of which is Carlsbad Cavern. Carlsbad Cavern receives more than 380,000 visitors each year and offers a rare glimpse of the underground worlds preserved under the desert above.
Caves are fragile environments that are affected by human activities and natural processes occurring both underground and on the surface. Many park caves are preserved and managed in a nearly pristine state, so researchers can understand the unique ecosystem within them. These scientists are only beginning to understand the complex, microscopic organisms that inhabit the caves. Studying them has already revealed a food chain that begins with minerals in the rock, and has shown that some of the organisms may help serious human diseases such as cancer.