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Caring For A Cave

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, March 16, 2012

What kind of care does a cave need? At Cave Springs Cave Natural Area, the answer is very careful care! Small, sensitive species that hide in the darkness of the cave must be located and counted. To restore the landscape above ground, non-native plants must be eradicated, but any chemicals that might make that job easier would quickly enter the groundwater and the cave. Last month, ANHC staffers Jason Throneberry and Doug Fletcher led the scientists into the cave to count the rare animals. Since herbicide use could harm the species living in the cave, ANHC’s Patrick Solomon and Northwest Arkansas Master Naturalist volunteers attacked the invasive plants on the area by hand.

 

Cave Springs Cave Natural Area, a 57-acre property located in Benton County, is an outstanding example of an Ozark Mountains cave stream and hosts the largest known population of the rare Ozark cavefish (Amblyopsis rosae) (above left). It also harbors a summer maternity colony of the endangered gray bat (Myotis grisescens) (above right). The property includes the cave itself and a portion of the cave’s recharge zone. A conservation vision and a management plan guide us in our efforts to manage Cave Springs Cave and the woodlands surrounding it. Because ecosystems located within karst topography (an area in which the bedrock has been dissolved by slightly acidic groundwater to form caves, sinkholes, and springs) can be disrupted by even the smallest change in water quality, field inventory of sensitive cave species is very important.

Armed with wetsuits, knee and elbow pads, helmets, and waterproof headlamps, scientists from The Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission entered the cave. Part of the group was searching for the Ozark cavefish. This federally threatened species is very particular about its habitat—they only live in streams that are constantly 55-60°F and located in permanently dark, underground passageways. The Ozark cavefish is only known from a handful of caves in Benton County, Arkansas, with the largest known population in the world in Cave Springs Cave.

Surveyors began by spreading equal distances from each other then moving slowly upstream. Depending on the height of the cave and depth of the water, they may be required to swim, crawl, belly crawl, or wade during surveys. Because they have no pigment in their skin, they are easily seen in the clear water (right), even in the deepest pools. The recent survey resulted in the sighting of 132 individual Ozark cavefish within the sample area.

Other scientists used lights to search cracks, crevices, and ceilings inside the cave for bats. Inventory inside the cave resulted in the sighting of 67 hibernating bats. The bats observed were healthy with no signs of White-nose Syndrome (WNS), a deadly fungus that has killed more than one million bats across the eastern United States. WNS is not currently known from Arkansas.

 

Workers outside the cave focused on removing the invasive plant species wintercreeper (Euonymous fortunei) (above left) and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) (above right). Since herbicide use is restricted at this natural area due to potentially hazardous effects on cave species, manual removal of the invasive vegetation is one of the primary tools used to control these unwanted plants.

A prescribed burn was conducted at Cave Springs Cave Natural Area earlier this year. This burn reduced invasive plant vegetation and other decomposing plant matter, thus making hand removal a little easier. By reducing and removing invasive plant species, we increase the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground. This improves habitat for a number of rare plants on the property, such as Ozark least trillium (Trillium pusillum var. ozarkanum).


At the end of the day, Patrick and volunteers from the Northwest Arkansas Master Naturalists had removed seven bags of invasive plant material by hand. Since that workday, the Master Naturalists conducted a follow-up visit to the site (above) and removed trash and broken glass from the roadside. Their efforts were rewarded with the sight of Ozark trillium in bloom (inset above).



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