What is Speleology?

Mary McMahon

Speleology is a branch of the sciences which focuses on the study of caves. A number of scientific disciplines are involved in speleology, including biology, hydrology, and geology, among others. The study of caves has a number of practical and theoretical implications, with professionals in this field being known as speleologists. People who want to pursue careers in this discipline can choose to study at universities with a speleology department, or look for colleges with branches of the sciences which would be relevant to speleologists.

Many speleologists study the natural formations in caves.
Many speleologists study the natural formations in caves.

Caves have held a great deal of fascination for humans for centuries. They have served as sites for shelter, religious rituals, and punishment, and many societies have superstitions or beliefs about caves. It wasn't until the 19th century, however, that people really started taking the study of caves seriously, looking at it as a science rather than a hobby. Many researchers realized that the study of caves had very real scientific, economic, and cultural implications which could benefit from serious consideration and exploration.

The painted caves at Lascaux, France were discovered by amateur speleologists.
The painted caves at Lascaux, France were discovered by amateur speleologists.

Obviously, speleology does require some field work. Many speleologists actively visit caves so that they can study the natural cave environment while mapping caves and taking data, and some researchers actually start out as amateur spelunkers before getting more interested in the scientific aspect of caving. As with other sciences which have a field component, speleology requires physical fitness and some interest in outdoor activities, as well as an ability to use field equipment ranging from climbing supplies to ground penetrating radar.

Once in a cave, researchers can look at the geology, studying the rocks and minerals present and collecting clues about how the cave formed, and how it will progress. Many speleologists are very interested in the natural formations which appear in caves, and how these formations develop. They also look at the organisms which inhabit caves, ranging from plants and animals specifically adapted to the underground environment to creatures which use caves as temporary structures.

Speleology can also involve the study of underground bodies of water, which can be extremely useful when people want to learn more about a water supply. The study of caves is also critical in industries like mining, where people routinely enter caves, both natural and manufactured, and it is important to know about the geology and morphology of the cave environment. Some archaeologists also study speleology, since caves are sometimes rich in archaeological material, as do biologists interested in the interactions between the cave environment and the surface world.

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What college or university is a good place to get a degree in speleology and hydrology?

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