Students in Maria Potter's Cave Biology class observe soda straw stalactites in Cathedral Cave at Onondaga Cave State Park.

Caving for class credit

May 30, 2017 by Greg Katski

A group of Missouri S&T students spent the 2017 summer session spelunking in caves across south central Missouri for course credit.

Over the course of a week, instructor Maria Potter led the dozen or so students in her Cave Biology class on tours of Onondaga and Cathedral caves in Onondaga Cave State Park and Fisher Cave at Meramec State Park, as well as a number of smaller, unnamed caves in the Vilander Bluff Natural Area. Potter, an adjunct professor of biological sciences at S&T and natural resource manager and superintendent at Onondaga Cave State Park, also invited guest speakers from nonprofit conservation groups like the Missouri Bat Census to speak to her class.

The Missouri Bat Census is a group of bat and conservation-minded cavers, educators, biologists, students and others who conduct and maintain a database inventory of bats and species diversity in Missouri’s privately owned caves.

Potter, who earned a master of science degree in environmental biology from Missouri S&T in 2008, says her course is pretty popular and fills up quickly. Students in the course learn about the biodiversity, geographic distribution, ecology and evolutionary biology of subterranean organisms, primarily those that live in caves. They also learn about the structure of subterranean communities and ecosystems.

Damon Harris, a senior in history taking the class as a lab elective, says the class is fun and informative. A native of Mississippi and veteran of the U.S. Army, Harris had never been in, let alone explored a cave in depth until he took the cave biology class.

“This was my first time ever going in a cave,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of caves in Mississippi. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Harris was surprised by how expansive some cave systems are.

“I didn’t think they would be that big,” he says, adding that in the movies he watched the caves were always cramped and muddy.

Veronica Lee, a senior in biological sciences from Troy, Missouri, took the class as credit toward her degree. She appreciated the pace Potter takes in teaching the weeklong course.

“She lets you figure things out at your own pace,” Lee says.

In addition to cave biology, Lee took the two other weeklong, two-credit courses offered by the biological sciences department during the 2017 summer session – Field Ecology and Vegetation of the Ozarks.

Lee, an animal lover that wants to go into zoology or taxonomy when she graduates, had an internship at the Saint Louis Zoo last summer.

Potter says she had students approach her about volunteering or interning at Onondaga Cave State Park, and she is open to the possibility.

“It’s great having students that are so interested in cave ecology,” she says.