In 1978, The Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma began protecting its first cave in the Oklahoma Ozarks. Since then, we have purchased additional lands protecting other caves. These caves provide habitat for two federally-listed endangered species, the gray bat (Myotis grisescens) and the Ozark big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii ingens), the federally-listed threatened Ozark cavefish (Amblyopsis rosae), along with the Delaware County cave crayfish (Cambarus subterraneus) and the Oklahoma cave crayfish (Cambarus tartarus).
The Preserves consist of three different properties, dispersed across northeastern Oklahoma. Each property protects at least one limestone cave; two properties protect rare bats and an underground stream home to aquatic species. One site harbors a maternity colony of the federally endangered gray bat, protecting more than 20,000 individuals! Human access to each cave is limited, and the entrances have bat-friendly cave gates, allowing the bats to freely fly in and out. Above ground, the surface habitat is eastern deciduous forest.
THE LIFE CAVES PROTECT
Gray bats live in caves year-round, but there are few caves which meet their strict habitat requirements. They spend their summers in caves which are located near rivers or reservoirs in forested areas. Oklahoma’s gray bats migrate to Missouri for the winter. Once abundant throughout the southeastern United States, the gray bat has been on the list of federally endangered species since 1976. Continued bat use of a cave is important as bat guano forms the energy basis for the karst system; reducing human disturbance and maintaining surrounding forest cover are conservation actions that help this rare species.
Ozark cavefish are specially adapted to life in caves. This small, 2-inch long fish is blind, looks pinkish-white and has a flattened head. It can only exist in a cave environment and is found in permanently dark pools of clear water cave streams. The presence of cavefish can be an indication of healthy water quality. Pollution by agricultural chemicals, toxic metals, and high levels of organic wastes in the surrounding areas which recharge the cave water supply can threaten these rare fish. Due to its small population size, the Ozark cavefish was officially listed as a threatened species by the federal government in December 1984.
Cave crayfish are also blind. Because they have very little pigmentation, they appear white or translucent. This species has small first legs and very long antennae used for feeling around in the dark. The distribution of cave crayfish in the Ozarks is very limited; in the caves where they occur, they are usually found in clear, cold undisturbed pools within the total darkness region. These species are highly vulnerable to habitat degradation.
Because of the potential danger to the rare and protected species, access to these caves is highly restricted; however, scientific studies are possible and corresponding access may be obtained by contacting the Tulsa office at 918-585-1117.