Missouri Cave Life

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

People visit Missouri caves for a variety of reasons. Some seek opportunities for exploration, photography or geology; others study the organisms associated with cave habitats, a discipline called biospeleology. If you are intrigued by the underground take a trip with us to a typical Missouri cave. The first thing we notice is cool air drifting out of the entrance. If we made our trip during the winter months, the cave air would feel warm, instead. It's all relative. Cave temperatures stay fairly constant throughout the year. Missouri caves typically have an average yearly temperature of approximately 55-58 degrees Fahrenheit.

We occasionally see birds in the entrance zone of the cave. The Eastern phoebe often builds nests here. Vultures often raise their chicks here, too. Birds do not normally enter a cave, they just use its mouth for protection from the weather.

Snakes also use entrance areas. On hot summer days, the cooler air exiting the cave can help cool down a snake's body temperature. Snakes usually do not penetrate too far in, for there is little food deep in the cave.

Woodland plants may live near the mouth of the cave. Mosses and walking ferns may grow in the cooler air and in the low light of the cave entrance.

Entrance areas usually accumulate leaf litter and organic debris that has blown into the cave. Small logs, sticks and bark fragments blow in or float in with rain water. We could find a surprising diversity of small invertebrates in the decomposer community that will break down this organic debris. These are often so small that they are overlooked by most cave visitors (human, that is).

Occasionally we find salamanders in this entrance area, but they also live outside. Perhaps they are taking advantage of the cave's constant temperature, high humidity or prey found in the leaf litter or cave stream. The beautiful cave salamander is orange with black spots distributed over its body. It commonly lives outside of caves, under logs and leaf litter in the forest.

Other salamanders that are fond of caves, but not restricted to them, include the slimy salamander and the long-tailed salamander. None of these animals poses any threat to humans. They feed on small invertebrates they find in the leaf litter or streams. The leaf litter community may contain small millipedes, centipedes, terrestrial isopods, often called pill bugs or roly polys, terrestrial snails, earthworms and a variety of insects. We might

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