Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Marking 25 years of protecting cave habitats in Missouri

October 21, 2016

Ozark cavefish. Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation.
Ozark cavefish. Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation.

Sometimes our best work happens quietly, behind the scenes. Let’s take a moment to recognize what is perhaps one of our best kept secrets and lesser known refuges as they celebrate 25 years of conservation on October 22.

National wildlife refuges play a key role in the recovery of many endangered species. In the Midwest region alone, we’ve established refuges to protect Iowa pleistocene snails, Kirtland's warblers, Ozark Cavefish and Indiana Bats. Ozark Cavefish National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, has been protecting sensitive cave habitat since the early 1990s.

This 40-acre refuge protects Turnback Creek Cave Spring and is the outlet of an underground stream, which is designated as critical habitat for the threatened Ozark cavefish. The Ozark cavefish was listed as a federally threatened species in 1984. This two and a quarter inch-long, blind, pinkish-white fish lives in caves, sinkholes, and underground springs that are untouched by light in Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

Together with our partners at Paris Springs Conservation Area, which is adjacent to the refuge, we have been able to protect these important habitats across state and federal land designations. This state conservation area has the same conservation mission to protect Turnback Cave and the Ozark cavefish populations and Missouri Department of Conservation staff have been an invaluable on-site manager, helping to limit public access to the protected cave. They also work with landowners in the recharge zone of Turnback Cave to help with conservation efforts.

Early settlers often found Ozark cavefish swimming in their buckets as they drew water from their wells. They called the fish "spring keepers" or "well keepers" as a sign that the water was safe to drink. Today, they are still a sign of good water quality. Due to the dark environment, sight is unnecessary and the cavefish has no eyes. It senses motion given off by organisms in the water to locate food such as plankton, isopods, amphipods, crayfish, salamander larvae, and bat guano. Some threats to the Ozark cavefish include water pollution, declining bat populations (as the cavefish feeds on guano), specimen collection, cave disturbance and destruction, and changing water tables.

Turnback Cave consists of Mississippian-aged limestone bedrock. It has interconnecting passages and is also home to the federally-endangered gray bat. These types of caves often have very good water quality, but only if there’s no groundwater pollution. Groundwater pollution can occur from pesticides, chemical spills, agricultural runoff, road runoff, eroded soils, and garbage which flow into the groundwater and travel for miles before finally entering recharge areas where the cavefish reside. These underground pools then replenish the groundwater supply where we all get our drinking water.  

The cave is closed to the public to help prevent spread of white-nose syndrome, a cold-loving fungus, which has caused the deaths of millions of bats across the country. White-nose syndrome has been detected in Missouri and we are working with state and federal agency partners to find answers to stop this mystery.

We can all help to protect the Ozark cavefish and caves by not entering caves, disposing of trash and other solid wastes properly, leaving a vegetation buffer between farm fields or homes and streams, properly maintaining septic tanks, controlling animal waste runoff, and retaining forested areas near cave entrances because they act as nature’s sponge.

Learn more about Ozark Cavefish National Wildlife Refuge:

Learn more about white-nose syndrome:

Historic photo by USFWS.

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff.

Learn more »