Springfield, Ohio – Wittenberg Professor of Biology Horton Hobbs was one of four recipients of the prestigious Cardinal Award from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), an annual honor that goes to individuals who best reflect the organization's mission to "ensure a balance between the wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all."
"Harboring clues to the state's geologic past, and providing habitat to some of our most unique wildlife species, Dr. Hobbs has almost single-handedly resurrected cave research in Ohio," noted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), which presented him with the award for conservation achievement on Nov. 6.
Hobbs, who said he was completely surprised by the award, has made it a special mission to assist in the preservation of Ohio's natural heritage. His focal point is Ohio's caves and the natural resources that exist within them.
"Ohio is not known as a major cave state, but we do have some nice caves," Hobbs said. "It is important that we have these natural resources because they are windows to a part of our Earth that has received little attention."
Caves also offer answers to many questions about the state of natural resources, as well as providing aesthetic value.
"Innate beauty alone is a good reason to protect the caves," Hobbs said. "However, the quality of groundwater can tell us about damage that we have done on the surface and consequently how that affects what goes on in caves. When so many people depend on well water, this becomes important."
There also are unique organisms that live only in caves. Several species are restricted to only a few Ohio caves and thus are found nowhere else in the world. Each of these entities collectively demonstrates the importance of caves and provides evidence for their protection and preservation.
When Hobbs came to Wittenberg in 1976, he had yet to develop an interest in Ohio caves. By 1977, he began exploring the state's caves and as his interest increased he learned more about the effects that glaciations had on these caves. He began comparing caves that were located north and south of the historical advancement of continental ice sheets, particularly in the western half of the state.
"I found that to the north where glaciers had covered the surface and thus had heavily impacted the underlying caves, there were no highly specialized crustaceans living in them," he said. "To the south, however, where glaciers had not advanced and had not disturbed the caves, the subterranean crustaceans were blind and without pigments, indicating a comparatively long period of time that they had been dwelling in caves. It was interesting to see how biology and geology worked together to help us interpret the data."
Since then, Hobbs has surveyed approximately 125 Ohio caves, including some completed during trips in 2007. This research will continue during summer 2008 when he and members of the Wittenberg University Speleological Society will go to caves throughout the state, thanks in part to funding obtained by Erin Athy Hazelton, Wittenberg class of 2000. As an employee of the ODNR, Athy nominated Hobbs for the Cardinal Award.
Hobbs, a limnologist, founded the Wittenberg University Speleological Society in 1980. Since then, the number of documented Ohio caves has increased from 27 to more than 120. His efforts also led to the discovery of new cave-adapted species and adoption of the Ohio Cave Protection Act. Hobbs, who is considered one of the nation's top biospeleology experts, is currently working with the Division of Natural Areas & Preserves to document the plants, animals and microbes living within Ohio's caves.
"Cave inventory and exploration are great ways to get Wittenberg students involved in research," Hobbs said. "Although most Ohio caves aren't overly decorated and extensive, they're still interesting in their own right. It's exciting to find unknown caves and species new to science.
"It is particularly exciting to observe students as they become passionate about their research and contribute to our knowledge of Ohio caves."
Written By: Erica Strauss '08