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Cave adaptation is caused by dwarves spending too much time underground with insufficient exposure to outdoor sunlight.
Exposure of cave-adapted dwarves to outdoor sunlight can cause two negative thoughts: "irritated by the sun" and "nauseated by the sun". The latter results from more severe cave adaptation and is intended to trigger profuse vomiting (but does not due to a bug). Cave adaptation causes no problems if the affected dwarves simply remain underground.
Cave adaptation can be prevented by regular exposure to outdoor sunlight, which can be achieved by having an outdoor meeting area or high-traffic areas above ground. Roofing over these outdoor areas will protect your dwarves from weather while still preventing cave adaptation. In other words, any tiles that have ever been exposed to sunlight remain sunlit; actual vertical access to the sun is not necessary.
Cave adaptation can be treated by exposing dwarves to outdoor tiles. However, due to the negative thoughts brought about by exposure to light in cave-adaptated dwarves, these outdoor areas should be well decorated with statues or the like. This should provide enough positive thoughts to negate those caused by cave adaptation. The progress of treating severe cave adaptation can be observed through Thoughts and Preferences, as limited exposure to sunlight will first convert severe cave adaptation into mild cave adaptation; see Personality traits for details.
A dwarf who is completely adapted to life underground can be cured in a little over nine weeks of constant exposure to outdoors light.
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A scientific explanation of cave adaptation by Deus Machina.
Underground has low levels of light and very little air circulation.
Dwarves develop low-light vision (plump helmets are packed with beta carotene!) and their facial follicles become sensitive to the motions that a breeze produces against their beards, which allows them to tell where tunnels turn.
As they go deeper, their eyes become less relied upon, and they adapt further to rely on their whisker-based folli-cation.
These eventually become so sensitive that, should a dwarf venture outside, the wind is the equivalent of multicolored and varying strobe lights. This is as aggravating to a dwarf's folli-cation as a Pink Floyd show seen while sober is to our sight, up to the point of causing nausea.
While some have proposed beard shaving as a method of treating hyper-folli-cation, these people are believed to be elf spies, and drafted to cavern exploring instead.