[guitar music] [Narrator] On the surface Wind Cave National Park is full of life. Bison roam and graze throughout a rolling sea of grass. Look a little closer and you’ll see prairie dogs scurrying about their towns, collecting food while staying alert. Ponderosa pines offer refuge to elk, deer, and birds that prefer a little more camouflage. Streams gracefully twist and turn throughout the park, providing water for the world above and also, for world below ground. Water disappears from the vast expanse of prairie into the porous limestone below. It slowly percolates through the rock, passing layers of geologic time. Drip by drip, gravity guides the water deeper into the earth. Unfortunately, we cannot seep through the limestone like water, but Wind Cave does provide humans with a unique opportunity: to journey to where this water collects. However, that’s easier said than done. Wind Cave is one of the world’s longest caves, with new passages being explored every year. It is also one of the most complex caves in the world, with tight passages veering in all different directions. Getting to the Lakes Region where, the water collects, takes both stamina and strength. [Marc Ohms] Getting to the lakes takes us about two hours one-way travel time on average and depending how much gear we have sometimes with some of the researchers we have to carry a lot of gear down there so that adds at a time. Obstacles, the biggest obstacle is we are going to do the deepest part of the cave so you have to climb down a lot to get there. So, there’s a lot of climbs to get there nothing technical, but a lot exposed climbs. There’s a lot of tight spots and one in particular over a lake along the way you have to squeeze through this about 8 inch narrow slot that, not only are you trying to squeeze and get your body through there, but you try not to fall in the water that’s right below you, so it can be a little challenging. [Narrator] After a strenuous two-hour scramble, the cavers reach the first lake, the surface of the Madison Aquifer. It is an important water resource which underlies five states. It’s one of the only places we can actually see the aquifer. Normally, we’re just peering down wells and getting water samples via wells, but here we actually get to crawl climb and squeeze down and see the aquifer itself. Surprisingly, most of Wind Cave is void of life, yet here in the deepest darkest recesses, five hundred thirty feet below the surface, life does exist. Beneath a thin film of calcite, there is a vibrant ecosystem in these lakes, filled with a very tiny kind of life. So tiny, in fact, that when scientists first examined the water, they didn’t believe it contained life. Only on closer examination, did they discover a microbial community that has been evolving unhampered for millions of years. [Ohms] One of the more interesting things that’s come out recently is the biological aspect of things and looking at the microbial life that’s in the lakes. There’s no fish or crayfish or ducks swimming around in the lake down there, but what is there is very unique to science and over 20% of microbes they’ve seen so far are totally unique, we haven’t seen them anywhere else. [Narrator] Down here, bacteria are at the top of the food chain, they’ve had to learn how to compete in a starved environment. This competition has led to innovation, forcing the microbes to create new toxins to fight each other off. [Ohms] Microbes play a huge role in our health in many aspects of our world. One of it is looking at antibiotics, and that’s one of the hopes for this is that we could potentially find a new critter that we could be using as an antibiotic since we are kind of running out of them. [Narrator] In addition to studying antibiotics, scientists now have the opportunity to explore how bacteria might function in similarly starved and barren environments. The studies conducted deep underground can tell us about what might exist in other foreign environments, such as lakes found beneath sheets of ice in Antarctica and the moons of Jupiter. In this way, the lakes tell us not only about Wind Cave, but also about the larger world and universe that we live in. The cavers collect samples of water before heading back to the sunlight, in the hopes that these samples will one day reveal the mysteries of the bacteria and the ecosystem in the lakes. Time and research will tell. For now, researchers continue the arduous journey to the Wind Cave lakes, where few have ventured to find where the dripping water collects at the bottom of the most complex cave in the world.