A world of immense contrast to the dry, sunny desert lies just a few miles south of Saguaro National Park, on the border of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. The Kartchner Caverns, discovered in 1974 by two amateur spelunkers, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, were kept a secret in order to prevent vandalism until they were acquired by Arizona State Parks in 1988. Then, for more than a decade, the caverns were closed to the public while researchers conducted extensive studies on this unique and pristine environment, as well as on its animal inhabitants.
More than 200,000 years old, the limestone Kartchner Caverns boast many natural wonders including the world's longest recorded calcite soda straw (a thin hollow stalactite that forms as water drips from the ceiling), which measures an immense 21 feet 2 inches (six meters), as well as Arizona's tallest column, the 58-foot (18 meters) tall Kubla Khan. In contrast to the dry desert environment outside, the caverns remain at a constant temperature of 68ºF (20ºC) year round, with a relative humidity of 99 percent.
Because of their size—about five acres (200 hectares) of complex labyrinths and giant rooms—the caverns provide shelter for many of the desert's species. The most noteworthy critters that call the caverns home (at least for the summer months) are the desert's bats, including the lesser long-nosed bat, the Mexican long-nosed bat, and the cave Myotis. During the summer, up to 2,000 cave Myotis bats enter the caverns to give birth and nurse their young. Bat droppings, or guano, are key to the caverns' ecosystem, ensuring the survival of spiders, scorpions, beetles, and many other insects. To learn more about the caverns and their desert surroundings, visit www.kaet.asu.edu/wildaz/caverns/cavern.html.