Caves and Karst
Learn more about the Karst Initiative and the Cave Springs Karst Study here
Arkansas Caves and Karst Habitat
Conserving the Nature of the Ozarks
The Ozarks have internationally renowned natural wonders, some above ground and some below ground. An important part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission is to work with others in conserving the nature of the Ozarks, with a special focus on the federally protected species that depend on its caves and karst habitats. Here are some commonly asked questions and information about Ozark caves and the animals that call them home.
How do caves form and what is karst habitat?
Figure 1. Different features within karst habitat.
Surface water enters groundwater systems rapidly passing through thin layers of permeable soil and fractures in bedrock. In karst areas, groundwater can travel over a mile per day. If the surface water is polluted, then it’s quite possible that groundwater may be polluted (Fig. 3).
Figure 3. Movement of water from surface to water table.
The karst landscape in the Ozark Highlands of Arkansas is a unique, delicate, and fascinating ecosystem. The Ozark Highlands include portions of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois. This is a region of karst topography, eroded to form steep hills, valleys, and bluffs.
In northern Arkansas, 24 counties contain karst features and subterranean passageways (Fig. 2).
Figure 2. Karst region of Arkansas
Animals that live in caves and underground karst habitats are often highly specialized and sensitive species. The animals found in Arkansas caves and underground karst habitats include bats, salamanders, cavefish, cave crayfish, cave spiders, cave crickets, and other invertebrates such as cave pill bugs (roly-polies), and tiny snails. Some animals, like cave crickets, are common but other animals such as Ozark cavefish are rare and have been given special consideration and protection by the Endangered Species Act.
Animals found in Arkansas caves that are federally protected by the Endangered Species Act include:
Two species of crayfish: Benton Cave Crayfish and Hell Creek Crayfish
One species of fish: Ozark cavefish
You can use our new interactive website - Information for Planning and Conservation (IPaC) - to discover what species may live on your property. Our office also maintains a list of federally threatened and endangered species for each county. Other organizations such as TNC and ANHC maintain lists of imperiled species.
If you have a cave or sinkhole and want to know if you have bats, cavefish, or cave crayfish, you can contact our office and a biologist can survey the cave for you at no cost. Learning about new locations of species and the numbers of individuals present is important information that aids conservation and recovery of that species. Once the recovery goals for a species are met, that species may be taken off the federal endangered species list.
Along with the air we breathe, clean water is the most important sustainer of life. We can only live a few days without it and the same goes for all other animals. Groundwater, springs, rivers, and lakes all contribute to the water we drink and the water needed by the animals that live underground. So, the number one thing we can do for ourselves and for the animals is to keep our groundwater as clean and as plentiful as possible. Check out these resources from the EPA and ADEQ to find more information about how you can conserve water within your home.
The Arkansas Field Office aids in the protection of karst resources and the species that reside in them by:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with a number of organizations to develop Community Growth Best Management Practices for Conservation of Karst Recharge Zones. These Best Management Practices (BMPs) are compatible with working lands and economic development. While the BMPs are not perfect and may not be relevant to all activities, they can help to conserve karst habitat and reduce threats to water quality. Employing these BMPs across the Ozarks would reduce the likelihood of new karst species becoming listed and aid in efforts to recover listed species. Precluding the need to list new species and restoring populations of listed species will greatly benefit the environment and economy of Northwest Arkansas.
If you have any questions regarding these BMPs and their application, please contact
Below are links to various publications and organizations where you can learn more about caves, karst habitat, species conservation, and spelunking (cave exploration).
Arkansas Field Office