Nature Lab

By Bonnie Chasteen | June 1, 2018
From Missouri Conservationist: June 2018

Each month, we highlight research MDC uses to improve fish, forest, and wildlife management.

Cave and Karst Management

Tumbling Creek Cavesnail Recovery

The Tumbling Creek cavesnail isn’t much bigger than a speck of gravel. It clings to creek rocks in Tumbling Creek Cave, the most biologically diverse cave west of the Mississippi. Because the snail is highly sensitive to environmental changes, it is a good indicator of the cave’s ecological health. It is also at risk of extinction.

Fortunately, the snail has a team dedicated to its recovery. Fifteen years into the effort, the Cavesnail Working Group, which includes several agencies, researchers, and nonprofits as well as cave owners Tom and Cathy Aley, is seeing a rise in cavesnail numbers. Fisheries Biologist David Woods is the current Tumbling Creek recovery plan leader for MDC’s cavesnail efforts. “We survey the cavesnail population twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall,” he said. “In the mid-2000s, we saw no cavesnails in the surveys. Now we routinely find snails.”

Aside from monitoring the cave’s water quality and conducting twice-yearly surveys, the team also  controls the snail-eating ringed crayfish. It lives in nearby Bull Shoals Lake, which can backflow intothe cave during heavy rains. “We contract with the Tumbling Creek Cave Foundation to trap and remove crayfish every week,” Woods said.

Because what happens above ground affects cave life below, the team focuses much of its efforts on the surrounding landscape. Since the early 2000s, dumps have been cleaned up, sewage systems have been upgraded, and erosion on the land that drains into the cave has been dramatically reduced. “Lessons learned from implementing the cavesnail’s recovery plan have improved the state’s cave and karst management as a whole,” Woods said.

Tumbling Creek Snail Working Group

  • Tumbling Creek Cavesnail Working Group
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) (recovery plan lead)
  • Landowners, including the Aleys and Tumbling Creek Cave Foundation
  • Missouri Department of Conservation
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Missouri Department of Transportation
  • Numerous independent Scientists

Cavesnail Discovery, Decline, and Recovery

  • 1966 The Aleys Purchased Tumbling Creek Cave to establish their groundwater tracing lab
  • 1973 The Aleys discovered the cavesnail and estimated the population at 15,000+
  • 1981 Tumbling Creek Cave Designated as a National Natural Landmark
  • 1996 Missouri Western State University Biology Professor Dr. David Ashley started monitoring the snail
  • 2001 Tumbling Creek Cavesnail Working Group formed
  • 2002 Survey yielded no snails; USFWS added cavesnail to endangered species list
  • 2003 USFWS Approved Tumbling Creek Cavesnail Recovery Plan
  • 2004 Tumbling Creek Cave Foundation Established
  • 2017 May survey estimated 367 cavesnails in the designated survey area

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen

Staff Writer - Larry Archer
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Creative Director - Stephanie Thurber

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler