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photo of Jud Wynne in the Atacama Desert

J. Judson Wynne
Cave Research Scientist
U.S. Geological Survey-Southwest Biological Science Center

Spaceward Bound Atacama 2006, Mojave 07, Mojave 08

Who I am and what I do
I am a cave research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey-Southwest Biological Science Center and I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences (emphasis: cave extremophile ecology/ remote sensing of caves) at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.

My interest in caves research began in Belize, Central America while working for the Belize Institute of Archaeology.  I was given the opportunity to conduct an ecological inventory of a potential tourism cave (for more info ( in west central Belize.  I was awestruck by the fragile ecosystem I encountered.  I observed a bat roost containing ¼ million bats, as well as menagerie of cave-adapted fish, shrimp and crabs, and cave-dwelling scorpions, tarantulas, millipedes centipedes, and beetles.  Ever since this expedition, I have been worked toward establishing a career in speleology.  I have investigated numerous caves in Arizona, New Mexico, Belize, and Chile.  My research interests include extremophile cave ecology, sampling strategies for inventorying cavernicole (cave-dwelling) vertebrates and invertebrates, nutrient inputs into caves, trophic interactions, niche specialization of cavernicoles, bat use of caves, and ecological communities within cave entrances, and detection of caves on Earth and Mars using thermal remote sensing imagery.

Currently, I am the concept developer and project leader of Phase 1 of the Earth-Mars cave detection program (funded by NASA Exobiology).  I am working with a multidisciplinary team to characterize the thermal dynamics of caves using a combination of ground-based measurements and aerial thermography. We have proven the concept; Earth-bound cave detection will be possible using thermal imaging.  We have collected ground-based thermal imagery at caves in the Atacama Desert of Chile and in arid regions in northern Arizona and western New Mexico.  We are using these data to characterize the thermal dynamics of our study sites.  Our results will be used to identify optimal times for detecting these structures using thermal imaging.  Additionally, we are currently interpreting aerial thermal imagery collected in collaboration with NASA-Goddard and Department of Army Topographic Engineering Center.  Imagery was collected at Cathedral Caverns and Wupatki National Monument, northern Arizona and El Malpais National Monument and Bandera Ice Caves, western New Mexico.  The techniques developed through terrestrial cave detection will ultimately be applied to finding caves on Mars.  Our techniques will be used to target candidate caves for robotic exploration.  These robots will enter these caves and search for evidence of life. We are launching Phase two of this research, which will involve studying caves in Antarctica, Australia, Chile, and Iceland.  I plan to return to the Atacama Desert this summer, and will spend our winter working in Antarctica. 

Areas of expertise
My experience and expertise include the following: cave survey and mapping; technical climbing and caving; bat capture, handling and identification; cave-dwelling invertebrate sampling, trapping and identification; study design and sampling of wildlife populations; astrobiology; speleology and speleogenesis; cave extremophile ecology; interpretation and analysis of remotely sensed imagery (satellite and aircraft platforms); techniques involved with remotely sensed imagery capture; microclimatic sampling of caves and thermal remote sensing of caves on Earth and Mars; orienteering; and, endurance training. 

How I first became interested in this profession
Since I was a child, I knew I had the heart of an explorer and I always had an interest in wildlife. During the summers and weekends of my adolescence, I would leave early in the morning to explore the woods, ditches and marshes throughout my south Georgia island home. Often times, I would not return until well after sunset -- much to the chagrin of my parents. While on my "expeditions," I studied the land, I learned how to find read animal sign and determine where certain animals were likely to be found. As a result, I brought home snakes, frogs, turtles, baby raccoons, as well as a menagerie of wounded wildlife. Ultimately, my quest for exploration lead me into scientific research, where I have conducted numerous projects in the fields of archaeology and ecology.   My work in ecology ultimately morphed into caves and through caves I found astrobiology. 

What helped prepare me for this job
There are two things which have prepared me for my line of work: (1) academic training augmented by field experience, and (2) endurance and adventure race training. I have an M.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from Northern Arizona University (NAU) and a UNESCO/ Cousteau Certificate in Ecotechnie from the Free University of Brussels. Field experience includes working in some of the most remote areas in the southwestern United States, as well as in Belize, Chile, Mexico, Scotland and Belgium.  Because working underground in caves can be quite challenging, I train intensively to maintain top physical condition, and train multiple events at least once per week. To date, I have competitively completed the Mt. Taylor Quadrathlon (a 43mi race from ~4500 to 11,501 feet), Imogene Pass Run (17.1mi run -7810 to 8820 feet through the Imogene Pass of 13,120 feet), Soulstice Trail Run (10.2mi), Gaspin’ in the Aspen Duathalon (26mi) and a multitude of 10K races.  The combination of academic training, field experience and endurance training have provided me with the ability to work in the subterranean world.

Role Models
My Grandfather- Judson H. Wynne, Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert Nesta Marley

My career path
I will complete my Ph.D., and continue my research in cave ecology and extraterrestrial cave exploration.  I also want to be an astronaut.  I want to be a member of the first team to explore a martian cave.

What I like about my job
Because there is so little known about cave-dwelling organisms, biospeleologists (cave biologists) are constantly making new species discoveries. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of my job would be making new species discoveries. From a 2005 survey of 24 caves in Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in northwestern Arizona, my team and I have identified at least six new species and one new genus of cricket (  Additionally, working with a team that plans to explore martian caves for extant/extinct lifeforms is incredibly exciting. 

What I don't like about my job
There is very little I don’t like about my job.  The only thing that remotely qualifies as a “dislike” is the constant pursuit of grant monies.  I’ve chosen to work in a highly specialized area of research, and I also want the latitude to develop my own research questions.  As a result, I constantly write grants to secure funding for my research and arguably more importantly, to put food on the table. 

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
Science is clearly the most creative and exciting profession (granted – this is probably a bit biased coming from a scientist). I recommend anyone who is interested in becoming a scientist to apply him or herself, find the scientific discipline they love and work hard towards becoming a major contributor to that discipline. Concomitantly, students and scientists alike should never forget the importance of living life fully and being happy. School and research is often very demanding.  I know many researchers who chose to bury themselves in their work and this makes many of them very happy.  My personal philosophy is a happy life comes through mental, physical and spiritual balance.  While I do perceive burying one's nose in books and being armpit deep in experiments as part of the mental component, it is only part of the equation. I believe everyone should challenge and push him or herself intellectually and physically, while pursuing a spiritual totem.  Get out there – work hard, explore the world, explore nature, explore culture, and explore your relationships with those you encounter. Breathe deeply, acknowledge your breath, and enjoy and embrace all that life has to offer!

I also enjoy teaching children and the general public regarding the excitement and enjoyment I have found through scientific exploration.  I find it vitally important to educate the public regarding the importance of conserving and properly managing caves and the animals known to inhabit them. I often lecture at schools and public forums on astrobiology, speleogenesis, and bat and cave ecology conservation.  I am also a musician and play guitar, harmonica, sing and song write. Since living in Flagstaff, I periodically play local clubs and festivals.

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Editor: Linda Conrad
NASA Official: Liza Coe
Last Updated: June 2011