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Ghost Fish of the Ozarks

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

fish were all around. It was not unusual back then to see 10 to 15 cavefish."

Ozark cavefish have declined over the years and now are federally threatened. There were probably never great numbers of cavefish, and scientists and curiosity seekers who collected specimens may well have contributed to their decline. It is now illegal to collect the Ozark cavefish.

The most important factor causing the decline of the cavefish has been pollution in the groundwater caves where they live. Polluted surface water enters the underground water supply through sinkholes, losing streams and percolation through the thin soils and cracked limestones and dolomites of the Ozarks.

Too often these surface waters carry human sewage, agricultural wastes and heavy silt loads from a variety of sources. Once underground, the polluted water destroys the delicate balance of life found there. The "ghost fish" is one of the first to disappear.

Landowners can help reduce threats to Missouri's cave systems and the organisms that live there by following a few simple guidelines:

  • Make sure your septic tank and tile fields are installed properly and maintained.
  • Dispose of all trash and other solid wastes properly.
  • Control domestic animal waste runoff and repair leaking sewage lagoons.
  • Keep forested buffer areas near cave entrances and sinkholes and along streams. These provide a natural filter that improves water quality. Buffer zones also trap soil particles and ensure that cleaner water enters the underground system.
  • Put up fences or gates around sinkholes or cave openings on your property that allow wildlife to enter but restrict human access.
  • Seal abandoned wells properly.

Missourians have a tradition of concern for all of our wildlife resources, including those that do not appear to have food or sport value, like the Ozark cavefish. We cherish the song of the green tree frog and the sizzle of a crappie fillet in the pan with equal ardor.

A number of concerned Missourians have joined forces to improve the habitat of the "ghost fish." The Conservation Department has worked in several southwest Missouri counties to reestablish wooded corridors along streams, cap open wells, fence cave entrances and sinkholes and post educational signs. Biologists also remove introduced fish species that prey on cavefish and compete with them for food.

One individual can make a significant difference. Charles Salveter, a southwest Missouri landowner, has fenced his cattle out of the streams and sinkholes that pass through a local cave's recharge area. He has also posted cave refuge signs to protect

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