Conserving an Ozark Cave

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2007

Last revision: Dec. 3, 2010

dogwood, redbud, sycamore and short-leaf pines. Sassafras, hickories and persimmons should reestablish naturally from the surrounding areas.

Thanks to a cost-share project with the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, 20 farm dumps in sinkholes and in gullies that directly feed losing streams in the recharge area have been cleaned. Many of those dumps contained household chemicals, petroleum products, partially full paint cans, empty pesticide and oil containers with residues, used medical supplies and an unbelievable number of disposable diapers. Cavers from several Missouri groups helped with these cleanups.

Bat Protection

Bats are extremely important to this and many other cave ecosystems. Most of the energy input to a cave might be from gray bat guano.

Eight species of bats have used Tumbling Creek Cave. The endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) sometimes hibernates in the chilly entrance passage. The endangered gray bat (Myotis grisescens) has had a large maternity colony here in the spring and summer.

To protect the bats and, ultimately, the entire cave community, a team of 18 conservationists, helped by a grant from the Conservation Department, built the world’s largest chute gate on the cave’s natural entrance. A chute gate keeps trespassers out of a cave but allows bats to fly in and out. The gate was completed in 2004.

Tumbling Creek Cave’s gray bats were studied extensively because of their large numbers and the importance of the nutrient input provided by their guano. The earliest known population estimate in the cave peaked at 150,000 bats in 1969. In 1976 there were 36,000. Over the next 20 years the population generally remained below 15,000. The last outflight count before the completion of the new gate was 12,400 in 1998.

We’re not sure what caused the decline in the number of gray bats in the cave. There was a general decline in the species. An internal cave gate might have somehow hindered the bats. Trespassers might have unduly disturbed hibernation sites in the region.

What we do know from internal visual surveys, guano checks and near-infrared video counts of outflights is that the number of gray bats at Tumbling Creek Cave has increased to about 35,000 since the chute gate was installed.

The Conservation Department has increased its efforts to help Missouri cave owners and to teach people about caves and karst.

It is disturbing that the most protected private cave in the Ozarks—in a rural area with little industry or row crops—still developed ecological problems. However, the methods we developed in dealing with those problems will be useful to others.

Through studies, short courses, TV shows and (we hope) articles like this one, the lessons learned at Tumbling Creek Cave have helped many people to better manage caves and groundwater.

Cave Gating and Education

Cave gates protect caves and wildlife from human intruders, but harm can come from improper designs. Designs have changed over the years, and now we know what works and what does not. To learn more, click on the "Biospeleology" link listed below and then click on “Cave Gates We Have Known.”

The Conservation Department’s cave biologist can lend a technical hand and advice to landowners. The Department also provides educational resources on caves and karst. These include publications, guidance documents, teachers’ cave trunks, groundwater models and training workshops. For more information, contact Bill Elliott at (573) 522-4115 ext. 3194, or e-mail him at


Twelve of Tumbling Creek Cave’s 115 species are cave-adapted troglobites. Species in bold are found only in this cave.

Scientific name Common name
Antrobia culveri Tumbling Creek cavesnail
Arrhopalites clarus Cave springtail
Brackenridgia ashleyi Trichoniscid isopod
Caecidotea ancyla Ancyla cave isopod
Caecidotea antricola Antricola cave isopod
Causeyella dendropus Causeyella cave millipede
Chaetaspis aleyorum Aleys’ cave millipede
Eurycea spelaea Grotto salamander
Islandiana sp. Cave spider
Spelobia tenebrarum Cave dung fly
Stygobromus onondagaensis Onondaga cave amphipod
Stygobromus ozarkensis Ozark cave amphipod

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