Can you find all the cave critters in these photos?
The caves of the Ozarks provide homes for unique animals, and a comfortable year round climate
Bats, Cave Salamanders, Pickerel Frogs and Slimy Salamanders are not always found in caves, but they like caves for their safety and comfortable year-round climate. These species are called troglophiles. Caves are mostly isolated from the outside and make great shelters, but that means food and light can be extremely scarce. But still, unique species exist in the lightless passages deep within cave systems. Species that spend their entire life inside a cave are called troglobites. Caves are important habitats or homes for all kinds of unique and sometimes endangered animals; such as cavefish, Grotto Salamanders, cave crayfish, insects and crustaceans.
- Troglophile - an animal that may prefer to live in a cave, but can survive outside the shelter of the cave
- Troglobite - an animal that has adapted to permanent life inside a cave
Caves play an important role in how water moves across the land
There is an abundance of caves, springs, sinkholes and losing streams among the rolling hills of the Ozarks. All are typical features of a karst landscape; connecting the surface with the cavernous ecosystems below. When water infiltrates into the ground, it enters small cracks and crevices within the bedrock. Over time, water washes away small pieces of rock, slowly creating larger passages as it flows. Eventually, this process will create elaborate cave systems.
As water flows through cave passages, it brings with it sediments and organic debris from the surface, providing nutrient sources for cave life.
Cave life in the Ozarks and their food chain
Creatures confined to the darkest regions of the cave rely on outside forces to bring food into the cave for them. Many of these cave animals eat only what is brought in by bats or other animals, or what is washed into the cave during periods of rain.
When bats fly back into a cave after filling up on bugs, they will leave piles of guano beneath where they roost. As the guano starts to decompose, fungus will grow. This fungus provides a key link in the cave’s food chain. There are fourteen species of bats found in the Ozarks. All of them eat bugs, and their guano can be a great food source for other cave creatures.
It is important to protect caves and keep the unique cave life safe
In the depths of Fantastic Caverns there is a species of protected cavefish called the Ozark Cavefish. There are likely only a few hundred of these cavefish to be found anywhere in the world. The Ozark Cavefish is very small, between ½ inch -1 ½ inches long. It has no pigmentation to it’s skin and it is completely blind. This fish lives in total darkness deep within caves of the Ozarks in permanent pools of water. Clean groundwater is very important to their survival, and the survival of other cave inhabitants.
Grotto Salamanders and cave crayfish are two other unique types of animals that live in the far-reaching areas of caves. Like the Ozark Cavefish, these animals are blind and near colorless, but they are larger than the cavefish. Grotto Salamanders and cave crayfish look very similar to crayfish and salamanders you would see on the surface, except for their coloration and blindness.
There are three species of cave crayfish found in the Missouri Ozarks
To protect cave life, and our water quality, it requires us to take action. Caves are very sensitive to water pollution. What happens on the surface can easily affect the very delicate ecosystem of the caves below. When caves and cave life become threatened, it is usually due to surface activity.