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Media Life: Shedding light on mysterious caves, creepy critters

Hawver Cave expert will speak; Motorists advised to beware tarantula herds
By: Gus Thomson/Media Life
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The Auburn-area’s most studied burrow will be in the spotlight next Friday, Nov. 4, when local Hawver Cave expert Gene Lorance presents a talk on one of the wonders of the foothills. Hawver Cave is located across the Middle Fork of the American River from Placer County but is named for the Auburn dentist who is credited with unearthing its incredible cache of ancient bones and fossils in 1906. Lorance, Hawver Cave project manager for the Auburn State Recreation Area, is in the midst of finishing a book on the cave and will be providing a look at both its visual and paleontological wonders. Part of the cave system drips with icicle-shaped stalactites that Lorance has photographed. Lorance will also share his knowledge on the more than 400 bones and fossils pulled out of the main cave before limestone mining operations ran a tunnel through the underground site. The University of California, Berkeley received the bones for study and scientists identified a dozen different extinct species from the Pleistocene era. The era ended 11,700 years ago and began 2.58 million years ago. The species list from Hawver Cave includes ground sloths, saber-toothed tigers, bison and giant dire wolves. There are only two other caves yielding bones like it in Northern California – both in Shasta County. Lorance will speak during the Noon Program at the Auburn Library. The program is free and while it begins at noon, attendees are advised to arrive at 11:45 a.m. to ensure a seat. Refreshments are available. Lorance said his book has taken a backseat in recent months to work completing a map of the structure of the Hawver Cave. Not only is it a valuable reference point for scholars but should help locate anyone lost inside, he said. Part of Lorance’s work is to ensure that the cave remains sealed. It’s off-limits and behind iron gates and grates to keep out the curious. But Lorance will be able to provide an insider’s look Nov. 4 at what few have seen. Tarantula warning The Journal’s tale this week of tarantulas roaming the foothills in search of mates may have provided an uncomfortable surprise for arachniphobes. But reader Marilyn Loveall phoned to tell of an incident several decades ago that shows they can also be a hazard to motorists. Her husband was driving in the American River canyon and came upon a wreck that was caused by the creepy critters. The car in front of her husband’s had left the road and crashed after trying to brake for a foot-wide path of migrating tarantulas crossing the thoroughfare. The wheels slid into the parade of spiders and the result was more sliding after the tires squished a few too many of them, slickening the skid. While it happened many moons ago, wouldn’t it make drivers in the canyon sit up and take notice if a “Tarantula Crossing” sign was put up? The state Department of Fish and Game’s media folk are helping provide some more insights into tarantulas – a giant in the spider world that is on the prowl in the foothills during September and October for a mate. Wildlife biologist Nathan Graveline, who said he’s been fascinated with tarantulas since he was a small boy, advises not handling the shy arachnids. Although a tarantula’s venom is not lethal, the bite may be painful, similar to a bee sting, due to the size of the spider’s fangs, he said. And while Halloween imagery place tarantulas in ominous-looking spider webs, they’re actually ground dwellers. They’re too heavy to hang from a web and it doesn’t sit in a web waiting for its prey. Instead, it uses silk to line its burrow and cover the opening. After the male finds a mate, the female returns to her own den – often after ingesting the spent male – and spins a bed of silk to deposit fertilized eggs. Then she spreads another layer on top to create an insulated cocoon. Young tarantulas usually hatch six to seven weeks later. While rarely seen in the daytime, female tarantulas can live to be 20 or 25 years old. Males die a few months after mating – if he is not consumed in the process, Graveline said. Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com or (530) 852-0232.