Cave Paleontology

a person in a cave pointing at the ceiling
Cave scientist, Vanessa Padilla, points out shark fossils exposed in the ceiling of a cave passage at Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky.

NPS photo by Rick Toomey.

Introduction

A great diversity of fossils are preserved in National Park System caves. Cave fossils have been documented in 56 park units. Cave fossils include fossil plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, and trace fossils.

There are two ways that paleontological resources can occur in caves. First, fossils can be preserved within the cave-forming rock and may become exposed through cave-forming processes. Second, fossils can accumulate within the cave and karst features, such as in cave openings, sinkholes, and tubes. Animals use caves for shelter and feeding; animals will seek refuge within and can be accidentally trapped or predators will carry a carcass into a cave. Cave fossils can be important resources for paleontologists who use these accumulations to identify what types of organisms have inhabited an area.

Caves are important environments for the preservation of paleontological resources. The relatively constant temperature and humidity of caves aid in the long-term preservation of organic material. Fossils formed inside the caves are protected from the harmful effects of solar radiation, as well as the forces of weathering and erosion.

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      Published Cave Paleontology Inventories

      • Kottkamp S, Santucci VL, Tweet JS, Horrocks RD, Lynch E, Morgan GS. 2020. Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Paleontological resource inventory (public version). Natural Resource Report. NPS/CAVE/NRR—2020/2148. National Park Service. Fort Collins, Colorado. https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2275666
      • Santucci VL, Kenworthy J, Kerbo R. 2001. An inventory of paleontological resources associated with National Park Service caves. NPS/NRGRD/GRDTR-01/02, NPS D-2231. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Geological Resources Division. Lakewood, Colorado. https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/573879
      • Santucci, V.L., and J.S. Tweet, editors. 2020. Grand Canyon National Park: Centennial paleontological resource inventory (sensitive version). Natural Resource Report NPS/GRCA/NRR—2020/2095. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2272389

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