Conserving an Ozark Cave
Tumbling Creek Cave in Taney County is a gorgeous cave with a gurgling stream. It also has the highest recorded biodiversity of any cave west of the Mississippi River. The cave has been featured in a National Geographic special and in other TV programs, as well as in scientific articles.
The cave harbors three endangered species: gray bats, Indiana bats and Tumbling Creek cavesnails; the last is nearly extinct. Among the 115 different species found in the cave are 12 species of troglobites (cave creatures with reduced or absent eyes and pigment). Two of these troglobite species are found only in this cave.
In addition to its biological wonders, 2-mile-long Tumbling Creek Cave is an important educational and research cave. Since 1969, more than 25,000 people have taken guided tours of the cave. Each college or professional group gets an introduction to karst (areas with caves, springs, sinkholes and losing streams), views sinkholes, then enters the artificial shaft entrance, which has two airlock doors to keep the cave from drying out. The visitors bring their own lights and follow a rudimentary trail with low environmental impact.
Tom and Cathy Aley have led most of the tours. The Aleys established and operate the Ozark Underground Laboratory, which is based on a 2,550-acre tract in southern Missouri. The nonprofit Tumbling Creek Cave Foundation owns 383 acres in the cave’s recharge area and around the natural entrance, ensuring protection of the cave into the future.
The Ozark Underground Laboratory has sponsored many studies of the cave. These studies include dye tracing to map the cave’s 9 square miles of recharge area that collects water to the cave, determining water infiltration rates into the cave and collecting water quality data from the cave stream.
Other research conducted at Tumbling Creek Cave includes studies of cavesnails and stream fauna and bat censuses, as well as studies of bat guano, stalactite drippage and land-use effects on the cave.
Even though Tumbling Creek Cave has been well-protected for more than 40 years, something unexpected happened. Muck visibly built up in the cave stream, which is normally floored with cobbles. Some areas became so mucky that one could not pull up rocks that had been loose.
In addition, the Tumbling Creek cavesnail (Antrobia culveri) nearly went extinct. In 1972, a researcher had estimated that 15,000 cavesnails lived under the stream rocks. Fewer cavesnails were noticed by 1991. By 2001 only a few cavesnails could be found.