Untouched cave to provide clues to Black Hills history

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- The National Park Service is excavating the mouth of an unexplored cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and researchers believe it could help broaden our understanding of how the region's climate has changed over thousands of years.

A park service worker found Persistence Cave in 2004 on the grounds of Wind Cave National Park, in western South Dakota, but the agency kept it quiet, partly to prevent amateur spelunkers from trying to explore the well-preserved site.

Today, a team of scientists led by East Tennessee State University professor Jim Mead will begin unearthing the entrance of the cave, hauling out bags of sediment and animal bones to be analyzed. They already have found bones dating back nearly 11,000 years and the remains of at least three species that hadn't been found in the region before -- the pika, pine marten and platygonus, a relative of the modern-day peccary.

While it's exciting to find an extinct species that roamed the region, Mead said it's more ecologically important to him to discover an existing animal such as the pika once lived there. The rodent-like mammal still can be found in cold, mountainous climates of North America, suggesting the environment of the Black Hills once was quite different, he said.

The researchers will study the newfound fossils alongside those found at the famous Mammoth Site -- a well-preserved graveyard of the prehistoric beasts -- discovered in nearby Hot Springs in the 1970s. They'll use their findings to map how the region's climate has changed -- the mammoths are believed to have died about 26,000 years ago, while the oldest bones found at the mouth of Persistence Cave date back about 11,000.

To protect the cave and its contents, the park service won't disclose the exact location of Persistence Cave yet, saying only the entrance is about one-third of a mile from the known edge of Wind Cave's tunnel system.

The research being conducted by Mead and his team accounts for only half Persistence Cave's newfound potential.

Once sediment is removed from the cave's entrance, park service staffers and spelunkers from South Dakota and Colorado will begin to try and explore further. Officials believe it could be large because of the direction and speed of the wind that blows from its only known entrance.