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Steamboat Springs cave to become National Natural Landmark after unique lifeforms discovered

Sulphur Cave in Steamboat Springs is full of toxic gases, deadly to humans but not to the rare blood red worm.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo — As the manager of Howelsen Hill, Brad Setter knows all about the long history the area has with winter sports. 

“We’re the oldest operating ski area in North America," said Setter.

He also knows all about a long history that’s been forming underground inside Sulphur Cave. 

“This cave has been here for thousands of years and is formed on a deposit of limestone," he said. 

Credit: 9News

Most who visit Howelsen Hill might not notice Sulphur Cave. It’s a small hole in the ground surrounded by a wooden fence and marked with a sign that has some information on it. 

The warm water of Sulphur Spring flows into the cave but inside there are toxic gases that are lethal to humans. 

“That is because it is a highly toxic environment to humans," said Setter. “High levels of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. You could pass out in seconds or minutes and it can be fatal to humans.”

Credit: 9News

In 2007, scientists wearing protective gear explored the cave and discovered a world like no other. Inside “snotties,” biologically formed speleothems, hang from the ceiling and are only found in five other caves around the world.

“They are a lot like stalactites, but they look like snot dropping down from the ceiling,” said Setter. “They are alive. They have bacteria in them that materializes and creates the sulfuric acid that creates this cave.”

Credit: 9News

It’s also the only place on earth where anyone has ever discovered the blood-red worm living in the flowing water of the cave.

“They are called extremophiles, life forming in extreme environments on this planet,” said Setter. “These red worms, they exist in water that is high in sulfuric acid and they have an unusual blood system that allows them to live and thrive in that environment." 

Credit: 9News

The cave is so unique scientists are studying the environment to help them better understand where life might be found on other planets. The cave is expected to soon be designated as a National Natural Landmark. 

“It is unique and very exciting,” said Setter. “We’re excited to have this and to protect this and make sure this cave continues.

Credit: 9News

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