Shelly Colatskie sheds light on creatures that live in darkness.
Outside, sunshine illuminates the Ozark hillside, but deep inside the cave, the darkness is complete. So is the silence. It makes the scuffle of Shelly Colatskie’s boots echo as she creeps along the muddy passage. The beam of her headlamp pierces the gloom, scanning for objects like the light from an airport tower.
Hibernating gray bats blanket the ceiling. Some are piled four deep on top of each other. In places, 250 bats snuggle in a space the size of this magazine. As a cave biologist, it’s Shelly’s job to count them all. Her tallies help scientists learn whether bat numbers are increasing or decreasing.
Shelly studies other cave creatures, too, including snails the size of sand grains and flatworms the color of pink cotton candy. These, like many of Missouri’s cave critters, are found nowhere else on Earth.
Not all of Shelly’s work happens underground. Sometimes she uses nets to snare bats fluttering through forests. Other times, she sits near caves and uses heat-sensing cameras to record bats flying out.
Shelly loves her job, but there are some downsides. Caves are cold, wet and muddy. Shelly must keep in good shape to lug gear and wiggle through narrow crevices. And, don’t even ask her about the rabies shots she had to get to handle bats. “But,” says Shelly, “if I can shed light on these mysterious animals, it’s worth it.”
Nichole LeClair Terrill