Several endangered species live in Missouri’s caves: including snails, millipedes, crayfish, fish and bats.

One endangered species is the grey bat. It weights about 1/4 ounce, and eats about half its weight in insects every night. It has a life span of 15 to 20 years. It is endangered because of habitat loss – the bats are being bothered too much in the caves that are essential to them. Less than 1% of the caves in Missouri are suitable for major bat colonies; the bats are very specific in their needs. Pesticides used on the insects they eat also threaten bats. These pesticides build up in the bats, and can kill them or their young.

The Ozark cavefish, found in Fantastic Caverns, is a very rare animal found only in the western part of the Ozarks. The fish lives only in underground water. It is the most highly cave-adapted fish in the United States. Fewer than 500 of these fish are known to exist. Underground water contamination is probably their biggest threat.


Cave attraction – cave open to the public with guided tours for a fee.
Cave coral (or popcorn) – irregular clusters of calcium carbonate (the mineral calcite) which builds up on walls and existing formations as water slowly seeps out.
Cave formation – a crystalline deposit of calcite found in a cave, includes cave coral, columns, draperies, flowstone, soda straws, stalactites and stalagmites.
Column – a cave formation connecting the floor and the ceiling, created when stalactites and stalagmites grow together or when one of them grows all the way to the floor or ceiling.
Drapery – forms where drops of mineral-laden water trickle down the underside of an inclined ceiling, leaving a deposit which folds and curls like a curtain.
Flowstone – forms where a film of water flows over walls, floors or formations depositing sheets of calcite (resembles icing).
Soda straw – thin-walled hollow tubes about 1/4 inch in diameter. It forms as water runs through the center and deposits rings of calcite around the tip.
Stalactite – grows down from the ceiling as water deposits mineral layers over the outside of a plugged soda straw.
Stalagmite – grows up from the floor as water drips from above, often (but not always) grows beneath a stalactite. It has a rounded top, compared to the carrot shaped stalactite.
Wild cave – an undeveloped cave, often located in a secluded area. Only experienced cavers should enter a wild cave. No fee is usually charged, and there are no lights or pathways.


Caves have important histories, and whether we know it or not, they have affected everyone. One prime example is saltpeter production – used to make gunpowder essential to the survival of the young United States. Primitive people living in cave country – including Indians here in North America – used them for housing, art galleries, and as sources of raw materials.

Two million-year-old skeletal remains of Australopithecus africanus have been found in shelter caves in Africa. They didn’t live in the dark zone; rather they used the twilight zone for shelter and meals. Archeological excavations beyond the twilight zone of hundreds of caves have never found a major accumulation of artifacts.


Cro-Magnon man was active as a cave artist during the waning phases of the last glacial state. Using the wall in the dark zone as a canvas, he painted thousands of animal figures, many of them extremely realistic in pose and vivid in color. For light Cro-Magnon used a wooden torch or a stone lamp, with marrow or fat for fuel. The lamp had a wick, perhaps of moss, and could produce a fairly bright light for several hours. The pigments were red and yellow ochre, mixed with animal fat, and black from burned bones and manganese coatings on cave walls.

Possibly the animal figures were made in the hope of ensnaring game by magic: many portray nets, spears, and traps. One remarkable fact is that cave art rarely shows a human figure, and those that are shown are little more than stick figures. The artists may have believed what many primitive people still believe – that a man can be hurt by mutilating a picture or figure of him.


Excavations at Sandia Cave in New Mexico reveal two different cultures. The older is recorded by distinctive spearheads. A two-foot layer of silt, without
artifacts, covers the spearheads. This layer contains pollen from spruce and fir trees, showing that the southwest had a cooler and moister climate than now.

The younger culture is represented by beautiful spearheads found above the pollen-bearing soil and under flowstone. Each of these spearheads has a smooth, shallow groove: the first points made by flaking with firm pressure rather than chipping with sharp blows. The men who used these fluted points lived about 10,000 years ago, and hunted now extinct species of wooly mammoth, peccacary, bison, and camel.

Here in Missouri, Graham Cave State Park (off I-70 between Columbia and St. Louis) is a sandstone shelter with layers of Indian artifacts. Archeologists have cut down into the layers, exposing the remains of older Indian cultures as they dig deeper. Indians used that cave as much as 8000 years ago.

In Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, an Indian skeleton was found lying beneath a giant rock, his bundle of reeds used for light lying beside him.  He was digging out a pocket of gypsum crystals, and apparently didn’t notice he was also undercutting the rock.


Saltpeter is a nitrate found in some dry cave soils – apparently left in the soil by nitrogen fixing bacteria. The mining and processing were ingenious. The miners piled the cave soil into giant hoppers, then ran water through to dissolve and carry out the nitrates. They then boiled off this water to leave the saltpeter crystals behind. Saltpeter is the major ingredient in gunpowder, along with smaller amounts of charcoal and sulfur.

The mining of saltpeter for gunpowder during the War of 1812 was of vital importance to the survival of our young nation. During the Civil War, the Confederates resumed the operation of these natural mines when the Union blockade cut off foreign sources of power.


New caves are found often. In Missouri we find new caves at the rate of about 80-100 per year. Recently discovered Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico is pristine, and huge – the deepest cave in the United States and surveyed at over 60 miles long. Cavers love to visit all kinds of caves, drawn by the beauty and adventure. Caves are a last frontier: where else can you still go where no one has ever been?

Cavers follow some basic safety rules:

1. Never go alone. Go with folks familiar with caves.

2. Take at least three sources of light per person (flashlight, carbide lamp, etc). Also, take extra batteries, bulbs, fuel, etc.

3. Dress in rugged, protective clothes: coveralls, boots, helmet, gloves, etc.

4. Make sure people know where you are, and when you expect to return.

5. Get the cave-owner’s permission before visiting.

6. Don’t go into a cave when it’s raining or when it might rain. Caves can flood in a short time.

7. Realize that caves are fragile and easily damaged. Follow the caver’s motto: take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints; kill nothing but time.


The simplicity of the cave environment, with no sunlight and constant temperature, makes a unique laboratory to study the end products of a geological and biological “experiment” running thousands of years. We also can study underground water from a unique perspective – from within the ground.


The list is long: mushroom growing (Fantastic Caverns), cheese-aging and storage (below Springfield), mining bat guano for fertilizer (Bat Cave in Arizona), using cave air for air-conditioning buildings (a theater below Stockton), fallout shelter (Fantastic Caverns in the 1960’s). But the biggest
business now for caves is tourism – cave attractions provide a comfortable and informative way for folks to enjoy caves.


Early settlers came to the Ozarks to make their living on the land. But in many cases, the land wouldn’t support them. Karst areas are scenic places, but the things that often make the land beautiful make farming difficult.

To understand why, look at the terrain. The topography generally is steep, with rivers cutting deep into channels leaving ridges in between. Think of the problems for farmers: steep slopes, thin rocky soil, a rather deep water table (which make wells expensive), and a constant threat of subsurface water contamination (given all the cave and sinkhole openings).