CAVE JUNCTION — The description Emory Nelkie offers for the creature he seeks in the dark recesses of the Oregon Caves would give Superman the willies.
"Do you know what a hagfish looks like?" Nelkie asked, then added, "Think of a leech with teeth."
Never fear. The ghoulish creature he describes is a tiny conodont, which has been dead for millions of years. It can only be found in fossil form in rock like the marble that frames the caves in Oregon Caves National Monument. Often only the teeth can be found.
Nelkie, 21, a senior majoring in geology at Lake Superior State University at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., is looking for evidence of the fossil as part of his Geological Society of America and National Park Service internship this summer at the monument. Back at the university, he is working with a professor focusing on conodonts.
"We believe the marble in the caves contains conodonts," said Nelkie, who hails from West Branch, Mich., where his parents have a dairy farm.
"It is a question, though, whether it has metamorphosed to the point where they are unidentifiable," he added.
He has arranged to take his rock samples to the science lab at Southern Oregon University in Ashland to scan them for evidence of the small fossils.
In the estimated 1 million-year-old caves, whose marble was formed out of limestone created by the sea hundreds of millions of years earlier, Nelkie's search is part of the caves' fossil story being told through scientific research.
Consider this: A jaguar fossil found in the caves in 1995 was the most complete jaguar fossil ever found on the continent and determined through carbon-14 dating to be 32,800 years old.
Grizzly bear fossils found two years later were determined to be more than 50,000 years old, meaning there wasn't enough radiocarbon left to date them. They were the oldest known grizzly bear bones ever found in North America until another set found on Prince Wales Island in southeast Alaska was also determined to be more than 50,000 years old.
Research at the caves also has produced the largest collection of salamander fossils ever found in the nation, according to the National Park Service.
"We think there are older bones in the caves that have not been found yet," said John Roth, a geologist and biologist who works as a resource management specialist at the caves.
Thus far, they have also found the bones of elk, mountain beaver, rabbit, wolf and wolverine, he said.
"Caves tend to preserve things much better than those found on the surface," Roth said. "Everything erodes on the surface. But down in the cave, the large amount of calcium neutralizes the acid in the soil. Secondly, you don't have the fluctuating changes in temperature and relative humidity that tend to destroy things on the surface by constantly expanding and contracting them."
"The deposits in Oregon Caves are truly unique — very important," professor Jim Mead, a paleontologist with the Department of Geology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, wrote in an e-mail to the Mail Tribune. "Not only do they hold a record of past faunal communities and climate, but they record it for a region of the Northwest that is extremely poorly known."
While it is difficult to recover fossils in the region, the deposits in the caves have captured amphibians, reptiles and some mammals over the eons, explained the scientist who has helped unearth many of the Oregon Caves fossils.
The jaguar and grizzly fossils may be the most talked about, but Mead finds the salamander fossils he is studying more challenging. The salamanders found in the caves thus far are a few thousand years old, he indicated.
Unfortunately, all that is found of the fragile amphibian is usually little more than a vertebrae one to three micometers long, he wrote.
"What makes the Oregon Caves so good is that many vertebrae have been recovered," he wrote. "What makes the research very difficult is that so little is understood about the northwest coast salamanders today. It is exceedingly hard to take that scant info and apply it to the fossil record."
As a result, scientists are studying the modern salamanders in order to learn more about their fossilized ancestors, he noted.
While most of the fossils are being studied at universities, visitors to the caves can see the bones of a black bear that died some 3,000 years ago in the caves. The park service has built a metal box around the site, covering it with a clear plastic sheet to enable visitors to see the display.
The bones aren't technically fossils because they haven't been replaced by minerals. However, to put them in perspective, the caves weren't discovered by European settlers until 1874 when hunter Elijah J. Davidson followed a wounded bear into the caves.
The conodont fossils sought by Nelkie are at least 190 million years old, according to the young scientist. From the samples, he expects to shed more light on how the caves formed.
"When I look at my microfossils and the different environment they came from, a time when the sea covered the continent, I think about how much different that would have been," he said. "You wonder what might have existed back then. The Earth has changed so much."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.