Climax Cave's dark, jagged mouth sits at the bottom of a 65-foot depression hewn from limestone by rainwater over eons.
It's a sizable feat to reach it. Visitors clamber down steep banks littered with uprooted trees and leaves. One false step could mean a dangerous tumble.
But biologists are willing to make the journey to Climax Cave and about 200 other caves in Georgia. They hope to identify species, assess the condition of the caves and develop a plan for protecting the delicate and sensitive ecosystems.
During a six-hour visit to Climax Cave, near the small town of Climax in the state's southwest, the biologists discovered the rare Georgia blind salamander, known to live at only two locations.
They also found the Dougherty Plain crayfish and the Southeastern myotis bat, both rare and in need of preservation. Thousands of years of evolution in a dark environment has left the crayfish and salamander completely devoid of skin pigment.
"We really don't know what lives in caves," said John Jensen, a biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "We've kind of put the cave ecosystems on the back burner, but it's important to know what occurs in caves so we can conserve and manage them."
Species documented so far in north Georgia caves include the Tennessee cave salamander, the gray bat and a host of beetles, crayfish and spiders.
Periodically, Jensen and fellow biologist Jim Ozier crawl into coveralls and don helmets to descend into the darkness of a new cave. They have checked about 30 since the study started last July.
"Most of the things we're taking a look at are tiny things--beetles, spiders, millipedes," Ozier said. "Some occur nowhere else but in caves and sometimes just in one or two caves."
Among other caves on the biologists' list is Ellison's Cave in northwest Georgia. It's a 600-foot pit thought to be the deepest in the eastern United States.
"Every cave is different," Jensen said. "Some have vertical pits that you have to rappel into. They're big black holes, and that can be spooky.
"Some have big doors," he said. "Some have narrow cracks that you have to crawl through. That's kind of spooky, but once you get in there, the stuff that's there is so interesting and beautiful that it kind of takes the fear away."
Information collected during the survey will be used to preserve caves on public land and to advise people who own caves on private land--such as Climax Cave, owned by cattle rancher G.W. Long.
"This is a cave that's in the raw form," said Long, who used to play in it as a teenager. "It needs to be preserved."