Episode 41: The Cave State Transcript


Nature Boost Podcast
Episode 41


[Bird whistling/tweeting.] [Intro music playing] [Owl hooting.]

Hey there, and thanks for tuning in to another episode of Nature Boost. I’m your host, Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

First off, I want to send a big “thank you” for being a supporter of the podcast. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of a project like this, and learning all about nature in Missouri and the different opportunities the state has to offer, and to get to share those experiences with you is just incredible. And this podcast truly wouldn’t be possible without the listeners and the support. So, on that note, I want to hear from you! Let me know what you would like to hear on this podcast, any topics that you are more interested in learning about, and in return, I’ll send you a Nature Boost t-shirt. Just shoot me an email on the website at Missouri-conservation-dot-org-forward slash-Nature-Boost, and scroll to the bottom of the page to send me a message, and I’ll get that shirt right out to you.

We know Missouri is the Show-Me State. That phrase tends to confuse a lot of people who aren’t from Missouri. I’m from Missouri, and it confused me for years and years.

There’s several theories on how that phrase came to be popular, one of which attributing the saying to former US congressman, Willard Duncan Vandiver, who gave a speech at a naval banquet in Philadelphia in 1899. During said speech, he expressed his incredulity regarding political affairs, saying, “I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.”

Now, the phrase has evolved and is used to indicate how Missourians have a reputation for believing only what they see.

In addition to the Show Me State, Missouri has another nickname that interests me a lot more: the Cave State.


Why are we known as the Cave State? Because there are more than 7000 documented caves in Missouri. That number is so hard to get my mind around! I knew there were a lot of caves in Missouri but not more than 7000, and there’s more caves being mapped each year!

[Music playing.]

What makes a cave a cave? The word likely has you picturing a big, dark opening in the side of a cliff, or a black hole in the ground where you find bats, or even a hibernating bear.

There are so many caves in Missouri because much of the state is a karst landscape consisting of porous limestone and dolomite, where caves, springs, sinkholes, and natural bridges form. Some of our largest caves formed ages ago as completely water-filled cavities.

Do you remember naturalist Shelly Colatskie from the Turtle episode we did earlier this year? Shelly is MDC’s cave expert and regularly leads educational programs on caves. Last month, she let me tag along on a tour of a cave in eastern Missouri. Take a listen.

[Music playing].

>> I've heard the term "spelunking," but that is not a term that you use anymore, is it? 

>> No, so the proper term is "caving."  People are not really familiar with caving, so they call it "spelunking."  It means the same thing. It’s just the proper term is "caving." 

>> Can you tell me a little about the cave we are going into? 

>> Yeah, so this cave is a nice stream cave, a stream coming out of it.  It used to be open to the public.  Anybody can come into it prior to White Nose Syndrome, which is the disease affecting bats.  In 2010, we put a gate on it, because of White Nose Syndrome.  Recently, we started opening up some caves to educational programming with guided MDC staff, and so, this one, we are now taking people in for educational purposes. 


>> Roughly how many caves are in Missouri? 

>> Over 7500.  Lots and lots of caves.  We are second to Tennessee.  Tennessee has 10,000.  And then we are second with over 7500.  It's closer to 7600 now, but each year, more and more caves are added to the database.  These are all natural caves, not quarries or manmade caves.  These are all natural caves. 

>> You said that we’re second only to Tennessee.  Why do you think Missouri has so many caves? 

>> Yeah, so based on our geology, and like I said, I am not a geologist, but based on our geology, the Ozark Plateau, pretty much south of the Missouri River has a lot of that karst topology.  North of Missouri River except in the northeast section of the state.  The northeast section of the state actually has quite a bit of karst topology, like Hannibal and Pike County.  However, the further west you go and northwest, it is all that prairie habitat.  So, any of the glaciated area doesn't contain the right type of bedrock, so it doesn't have any of those natural caves in there.  There are deeper soils.  It is really neat, the geology of Missouri.  You should know why we are second to Tennessee is the question.  Arkansas has the same kind of, you know, geology.  However, it also might be the number of people looking in the state, too, but also, the bootheel of Missouri doesn't have any caves, because it is a swamp.  Swamp habitat. It depends on the type of bedrock karst topology forms. 

>> Whenever I was talking to people about exploring this topic, everybody recommended, “Oh, Shelly Colatskie. She's the woman you have to talk to."  So, I want to know why you find caves so fascinating. 

>> Well, it's actually quite interesting.  I started out in grad school doing bat ecology work for Indiana bats.  I came out a couple times with Bill Elliott when I was in grad school.  So, Bill Elliott was our cave ecologist at the time.


That was my first time actually doing cave work.  And I just fell in love with it because it is such a cool environment.  There are a lot of creatures there that are found nowhere else on Earth.  It's just like an unknown environment that not a lot of people get to explore.  Sometimes, they are endemic to one cave, or sometimes, they are endemic to a region.  So, like the Tumbling Creek cave snails are only found in one cave in the entire world versus like the grotto salamander is found in a particular region, so the Ozark region in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. 

Pretty [indistinct] back here. 

>> Oh, wow!  If that doesn't look like the epitome of . . .  That is just . . .  Open mouth in there.  And you can see . . . 

>> And you can see from…  So, the stream, what it does is it runs through the cave, and on a good day, it will be flowing the . . .  This whole thing will be flowing.  You will see it will run through there and then kind of go under those rocks into that stream there.  And you can see that the water is pretty murky, and that's from us when we did the school program.  So, they said earlier the group that was out here said that they could see the water turning murky as it comes through, because this is the same stream, so this stream comes out of the cave, and it goes kind of in the rocks, and then down and down under the ground and through the rocks there, and then it comes back out here.  So as you can see, the . . .

>> Just from people . . .

>> Just from people walking in the stream. 

>> Oh, wow!  Are there stalactites and stalagmites in here? 

>> Yes.  Yeah, there are columns in here.  Stalagmites and stalactites.  There are soda straws, and all sorts of other . . . 

>> This is so destructive. 

>> They look like little straws. 

>> [Inaudible.] 

>> They look like little straws growing from the ceiling.  I forget how much it is, but an inch or so, one square inch or so, takes sometimes over 100 years to grow.  I forget exactly.


I will have to get you the exact thing, but one of my colleagues was in here earlier, and he was giving that calculation, but I know it's something like around an inch or so, cubic inch, maybe.  Maybe he said, "cubic inch." 

>> Takes how long? 

>> Around 100 years.  Sometimes less, sometimes more.  These things are really slow-growing.  That is why we have to be really careful when we go into these caves and not touch.  Like not touch the formations, especially if you see the white calcite growing on them.  That means the cave is quote "alive."  So, the water is still flowing through, the calcite is forming, the stalagmites and stalactites, the . . .  Sometimes, there is cave bacon.  It looks literally like bacon strips on the walls.  [Laughing.] 

>> Oh, my gosh, I can't wait to see!  Let's go in!  I don't want to hold us up anymore! 

>> We have one bat right up here. 

>> A bat?  Was up here? 

>> Yes, so there were three of them in here today. 

>> Could you tell what species? 

>> Yup!  It's a little muddy. 

[Water splashing.] 

>> Very drippy. 

>> Oh, my God! 

>> That is a tri-colored bat. 

>> That is a tri-colored? 

>> Yup.

>> It's so little! 

>> They were a once common species.  Used to be the most common species of bat, especially in caves.  With White-Nose Syndrome, it has decreased their population big time.  They can spend up to six months hibernating in caves.  They are a little more fragile than a lot of the other bat species.  Because of White-Nose Syndrome, they have been petitioned to be listed as an endangered species.  They have lost their population big time, but they are an important part of cave ecology, too. 

>> And that’s a big thing to note when it comes to caving is that you don't want to be spreading any disease in and out, so you always need to be aware of that. 

>> When people go into caves, we always try to say, "Wear clothes that haven't been in other caves before, especially now that other states, too, but also, when you come out of caves, make sure to clean all of your gear, your shoes, because not only do we have to deal with White-Nose Syndrome,” but we have to worry about chytrid fungus, which affects the amphibians, so salamanders and frogs that live in the cave, so we have to make sure to not only clean our clothes and our boots for White-Nose, but also for chytrid fungus that spreads throughout the water.  Mmhmm. 


In caves, not just the water. 

[Water splashing.]

So, we are in this cave.  This cave has a lot of aquatic life in it . . .

>> You don't think about aquatic life in a cave, do you? 

>> No, because as a constant cave stream in here, there is quite a bit of aquatic life, and we have several species of salamander in here, so we were in here earlier, and we had a long-tail salamander, and some slimy salamanders, but we also have had some cave salamanders in here as well as dark-sided salamanders, which is a subspecies of the long-tail salamander.  There have been pickerel frogs found in here. 

>> Pickerel? 

>> Pickerel. 

>> Ok. Haven't heard of them. 

>> They look like a leopard frog.  Similar.  But they’ll have yellow on the inside of their legs, and they’re going to be very common in caves, which, when you think of caves, you think of, "How are these animals finding their way?" 

>> That's right, because it is so dark! 

>> It is so dark.  We turned . . .  Right here is the Twilight Zone.  So . . . 

>> And why do you say, because you still have . . .

>> So you still have the light. 

>> From the opening of the cave, because we are not very far in it right now. 

>> If you turn your lights off, you will still be able to see the light coming in the cave, so that is the twilight area of the cave.  As you . . .  You have the entrance, the twilight zone, and then total darkness.  So, here, some things will see better. 

>> Total darkness. 

>> Total darkness. 

>> [Laughing.] 

>> That sounds like a movie. I feel like Jason Statham would be in the main credits.  Sorry, go on.  We are about to be in total darkness. 

>> We are about to be in total darkness, but you’ll notice that some of the cave life here is still the same throughout the entrance and then the total darkness.  We have a lot of red-eyed flies, which are heleomyzid flies that live around.


 I am trying to figure if I can find some now.  There's one right here.  That is a heleomyzid fly, and they are really common for caves.  They have little red eyes on them. 

>> Oh, wow. 

>> We had mosquitoes in here earlier. 

>> Don't want to hear about that. 

>> They don't bite you in the cave because they are nice and cool.  They are just kind of roosting in the cave. 

>> OK. 

>> Then you get the stream life.  Salamander larva.  They also have arthropods, like the scuds. Isopods.  Further into the cave, you’ll get cave-adapted life.  They adapt to that total darkness.  They will be completely white and blind. 

>> I was going to say, "Are they blind?"

>> Yes. 

>> Oh, wow.  OK. 

[Water splashing.]

>> Here, I didn't see . . .  You can see the little scuds or arthropods. 

>> Yes, I see them moving around in the water. 

>> So, those can be the same that are seen in surface streams.  A lot of them are like, [indistinct] arthropods, so you can see them in surface streams as well as cave streams, but there are also a bunch of other species of arthropods that are only found in caves sometimes, too, but they will be that complete white . . . that white color. 

>> Arthropods everywhere. So this section here we are going under is kind of a slight crawl not like a crawl-crawl. 

>> Almost like a crouchy. 

>> Maybe there are some sections where you have to put your knees on. 

>> Sure. 

>> That is why we wear helmets.  Then, it opens back up.  Sometimes, you find some salamanders, and you can see up here when you get here, Jill, you can see the stalagmites and stalactites growing. 

>> Oh, whoa! 

>> So there’s some… You can see the . . . 

>> Oh, sh. . . 

>> That is why we wear helmets. 

>> Yes, helmets. 

>> You can see the stalactites, meaning they grow in the ceiling versus stalagmites that grow in the ground. 

>> Stalactite, ceiling.  Stalagmite . . .


>> So, stalagmite, ground.  G for ground, C for ceiling. 

>> G for ground, C for ceiling. 

>> You can see this here is the active calcite growing. 

>> I don't mean this as a bad thing, but is that all so slimy?

>> Yeah, so that is why wearing gloves in caves, too, is going to help, because it is going to protect . . .  You don't want to touch the active stuff, either, because any kind of dirt, or anything from your hands can get on there and just kill the activeness on it.  You can see these are constantly dripping.  Constantly forming. 

>> Yeah.  Yeah.  One drop just fell right there. 

>> Yeah. 

>> Wow.  Yes, I will let you lead the way. 

[Footsteps shuffling.]  [Water sloshing.]

>> I have to say, being only 5 foot tall . . .  [Laughing.] 

>> It helps you. 

>> It does help a little bit! 

>> And then, all the yellow sparkly stuff you see on the ceiling. 

>> Oh, yeah, I do see! 

>> Like here.  That is all what they call chemolithoautotrophic bacteria, so they call it “CLAT” for short.  But chemolithoautotrophic bacteria is usually found within 1000 feet of the cave.  The first thousand feet of the cave. 

>> Is this in every cave?  Or just certain ones? 

>> Well, it's found in a lot of them. 

>> It's a common . . .

>> It's common. 

>>  . . . that you may see. 

>> Yeah. 

>> The kind of glittery ceiling. 

>> Yes, you can see there in gold or silver, and with the moisture on it, it kind of makes it really sparkle.  You know? 

>> Yeah. 

>> It is a bacteria, and they get its food from the cave wall. 

[Music playing.]  [Water dripping.] 

>> One bad thing about rechargeable headlamps is they do not last very long. 

[Music playing.] 

>> That's OK.  You always want to carry three sources of light when you are in a cave, especially if you are going to be in there for a long period of time.  Definitely when you are caving to have a map with you, especially if you don't know where you are going, and always have someone in there that at least is somewhat familiar with the cave.


But if not, make sure you get permissions to go in the cave first from people.  Permission is the big thing.  Never go caving by yourself.  If you get hurt, no one is going to find you under . . . 

That brings up another point, which is to let people know where you are before you go caving.  But never go alone just because if someone is here, they can help you go find help or something.  Because you won't get cellphone service in the cave. 

>> I think that is really good advice to point out.  It may seem like a fun thing to do in the moment, but . . . 

>> Yeah, it can be pretty intimidating.  Here's a column.  This is a column where a stalagmite and a stalactite are growing together, and it forms a column.  So, sometimes, you are going to see . . . in caves, you are going to see huge columns.  I don't know if we are going to make it back to the very back today, but if we made it to the very back, there is a giant column from ceiling to floor. 

>> Wow. 

>> It is really big.  But these are columns.  So, this is where a stalagmite and a stalactite grew together. 

>> Gotcha.  That is a pretty cool phenomenon when they are kind of working together like that.  So, this is calcium growing here? 

>> Yup.  That is the calcium growing down.  Or the calcite growing down.  And you can see sometimes they are going to have these pools that are lined with the calcium, and these pools provide really good opportunities for invertebrates as well as larval salamander to grow. 

>> Wow. 

>> This is where I want to reiterate, too, about not touching. 

>> Right! 

>> Because the more people touch, the more quote "dies."  It doesn't have that really pretty life anymore.  Versus like this side, you can see where it is more. . . . it doesn't have that pretty calcite growing. 

>> I see.  Yeah.  There is a difference there. 

[Footsteps shuffling.]  [Water sloshing.]

>> Yes, so the caves come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and lengths.


Some of our longest caves are in Shannon County and Perry County. We have one MDC cave that is almost nine miles in length.  That is in Shannon County.  The most caves are in Shannon County. The longest cave is in Perry County at over 30 miles in length. 

>> 30 miles? 

>> Yes.  That is not just one straight passage, but that is different passages going back and forth. 

>> Oh, yeah, they branch out. 

>> Yeah.  Yeah.  The most caves in the state are found in Shannon County.  They have the most per county with second to Perry County.  But then Perry County has the longest . . .  some of the longest caves, including the longest cave, which . . .  And then there is a cave in Camden County [sp?] that has . . .  It is pretty long and it keeps getting longer, too. 

>> So, I was just going to ask that.  Can they continue to grow, then? 

>> Yes, so as long as the water is eroding through.  It is going to take a long, long, long time.  But yes.  As long as there is water in a cave, it is going to continue to make the formations, make those side passages and stuff.  And a lot of the caves that people are exploring, they are so big that they haven't had time to map everything.  They keep adding on to these caves because as they have more time to explore, or they have smaller people . . .

>> [Laughing.] 

>> To make it through these little holes.  Sometimes, they have to send some small people through these holes to . . .  But the amazing thing is, they send these people through these small holes, and it opens up really big again.

>> Oh, wow! 

>> It is really cool.  You never know what you will find in a cave. Back this way here, it’s like a mud crawl here.  Sometimes, you have to get more on your hands and knees, maybe on your belly in some spots, and then, it opens up completely big again. 

>> Wow. 

>> 25-foot ceilings. 

>> You're kidding! 

>> It is pretty big back there.  This is really important for a lot of salamanders and frogs, and there used to be a lot of bats here prior to White-Nose.  White-Nose did a lot of damage to the bats that lived at this site, so . . .  Yeah.   


>> Do you have a favorite cave in Missouri? 

>> Well, probably Devil's Icebox in Columbia.  That was probably my favorite one to go into, because you canoe through it, and then you have to, you know, and it is just really cool.  I think it is probably my favorite if ever cave. 

There are a lot of caves.  I have been to over 150 of them, which doesn't seem like a lot.  But it is a lot.  When there are 7500 caves . . . 

>> Well, yeah, when you are comparing it to how many are in Missouri, but... 

>> It doesn't seem like a lot. But I think Devil's Icebox is pretty cool because it has such a really diverse cave life.  They’ve got really unique species in there.  It is a unique experience because you canoe through it, and then, you have this big, huge hill where we take our canoes and land them on the whatever, and then we continue on for a while to keep exploring and documenting species, and that's a really cool cave.  It's hard to pick a favorite, but that is probably the favorite. 

>> Is there anything else you'd like people to know about caves in Missouri? 

>> Well, so caves are really important.  They are a unique ecosystem that a lot of people don't get to see, and there is a lot of life in here that maybe people don't know that we still . . .  There might be other species we don't know exist, right?  So, there might be new species waiting to be discovered in these caves because not a lot of caves are heavily studied for vertebrates.  Even though we have a few people in the state who studied the invertebrates, they can't be everywhere. 

It seems like there is a lot missing that there could be some stuff just waiting to know.  Like, Tumbling Creek Cave in Taney County is the most diverse cave west of the Mississippi that we know of, but it is one of the most heavily studied caves, too, so there is constantly research in there about different invertebrates.  That is where the Tumbling Creek cave snail lives, and there are many endemic species of millipedes and other things that live there, but that's because it is a really well-known studied cave. 

So, it is like, "What are we missing?"  What are we missing in this cave and stuff like that? 

>> It almost reminds me of studying the ocean.  It goes so deep, and there's still so much that people don't know, that they are still researching. 


>> Yeah. 

>> You could almost say the same thing about caves. 

>> Absolutely.  Caves are not really well-studied.  We have to make sure to tell people to protect them as much as possible, because they are really fragile.  We don't want to disturb the bats during wintertime.  There was only three bats in here in this cave today.  If there were a lot of bats in here, we would have to tell people to turn around.  It's really important to make sure to protect these, and when you are in the cave, to respect . . .  Don't carve your name into things.  Don't spray paint the walls.  If you are going to be in there, explore, try to figure out what animals are in there, too.  Figure out what wildlife.  You might discover something new!  Working with Cave Research Foundation or your local Grotto Club is going to be a really good way to get involved in caving. 

>> Oh! 

>> Throughout the state, there are multiple grottos.  So, in St. Louis, there is the Meramec Valley Grotto, there’s the Stygian Grotto, there’s Middle Mississippi Grotto. In Columbia, there’s the Chouteau Grotto.  In Springfield, there is the Springfield Plateau Grotto.  In Kansas City, there is the Kansas City Grotto.  There are multiple grottos around the state.  They go to other places around and get people involved.  That is a good way to get people involved in the caving, is getting those people into those grottos, because they do biomonitoring as well as mapping caves.  So, we've got Cave Research Foundation working with us in DC. They’ve got an agreement with us to map and monitor all of our caves so they can get us more information for us. 

>> I was just going to ask if anybody was interested in learning more or becoming a caver . . .

>> Yeah.  A caver or a cave biologist or a cave ecologist.  Most of the terms are "cavers." 

>> Good.  Glad that that . . .  What resources you would recommend. 

>> Yes, get in your local grotto or Cave Research Foundation, Missouri Speleological Survey, Missouri Caves and Karst Conservancy are really excellent organizations to get involved with. 

>> Ok. 

>> Mmhmm.  We can turn our lights off real quick. 

>> Oh!  Gonna be in the . . .

>> Total. 

>> Total darkness.

>> Total darkness. 

>> All right, Shelly, help me, because I . . .


>> There we go.  So, when we’re out here, we also try to explain to the kids.  Imagine yourself in here without any lights, and we try to have them in complete silence for a second to see what they hear. 

[Water dripping.] 

>> You can hear the water dripping. 

[Water dripping.] 

>> Depends on the cave.  But could you imagine coming in here and your lights die? Like, how would you get out?  That’s why we always recommend having three sources of light and making sure they are all working. 

>> I mean, you can't even see your hand in front of your face. 

>> Yeah.  Some people think they can. 

>> Right.  Yeah. 

>> This is one of those mind . . .

>> Kind of a mind trick. 

>> But yeah, it’s very… Imagine the animals coming in.  Like raccoons and everything else coming in.  They are not seeing anything, either.  Of course, they see a little better in the dark than we do.  But it’s total darkness.  They’re working their way by feel. 

>> And it is so curvy, and there are so many things.  Like it is not a one-way shot. 

>> No. 

>> There are a lot of obstacles. 

>> Yeah.  Yeah.  It is really difficult.  Whenever people go into caves, make sure they have proper equipment.  So, that means helmet, because I hit my head several times today, and luckily . . .

>> Same. 

>> Luckily, we had helmets on our head, right? So that will protect . . .  Also, wearing proper footwear, something you will be OK with getting wet.  Today, it is warm outside, but if it were cold outside, you would want to wear clothes that are going to keep you warm. 

>> Keep you warm. 

>> Keep you warm.  So, if you get wet, cotton’s probably not going to do a really good job.  I wear neoprene long underwear underneath and wool socks.  So, safety is really important, so just make sure that you wear the safe equipment. 

>> Absolutely. 

>> And your lights. 

>> Lights.  Cuz woo!  This is total darkness. 

>> Total darkness. 

>> Wow.  Shelly, thank you so much. 

>> You're welcome. 

>> This has been amazing. 

>> This is great. 

>> What a cool experience. 


Missouri has wild caves and commercial caves. Now, I’ve been in commercial caves in Missouri before, ones that have been altered for public visits, ones such as Meramec Caverns, or Bridal Cave, or Mark Twain Cave. But this was my first time exploring a wild cave, one that is totally in its natural state, that hasn’t been renovated at all, and I want to thank Shelly again for allowing me to have that experience. Her knowledge and expertise on caves is so impressive, and it was such a delight to have her point out all of the things that we were seeing. The variety of invertebrates, the different salamanders that inhabit caves, the tri-colored bat that was dangling from the ceiling in the beginning. I would not have seen that if she had not pointed that out. And of course, teaching me all about the cave formations.

One thing she mentioned is caves are alive, and that is something I still think about to this day. In my mind, caves were these dark, desolate places, but she helped me to learn that they’re actually growing, albeit extremely slowly, but they do continue to expand, and not only that, but they’re ecosystems that support more than one thousand wildlife species!

If you want to learn more, read Shelly’s article she wrote for the March 2023 issue of the Missouri Conservationist magazine.

[Birds tweeting] [Music playing].

You can find that article online at missouri-conservation-dot-org-forward-slash-missouri-dash-conservationist. But  I’ll link that in the show notes for you to more easily find it. It’s such an informative article if you’re looking to learn more about caves.

Thanks again to MDC naturalist Shelly Colatskie, and thank you to you for listening to another episode of Nature Boost. I’m Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation encouraging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors!