Cave salamander at JT Nickel Preserve
Cave Salamander Cave salamander at JT Nickel Preserve © By Jay Pruett

Places We Protect

Ozark Cave Preserves

Oklahoma

Limestone caves in the Ozarks are home to sensitive habitat for rare bats and cavefish.

In 1978, The Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma began protecting its first cave in the Oklahoma Ozarks. This cave provides habitat for two federally-listed endangered species: the gray bat (Myotis grisescens) and the Ozark big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii ingens).

Since then, we have purchased additional lands protecting other caves that provide habitat for the Ozark cavefish (Amblyopsis rosae), the Delaware County cave crayfish (Cambarus subterraneus), and the Oklahoma cave crayfish (Cambarus tartarus). 

The Preserves

Twin Caves Preserve, located in far northeastern Oklahoma near the Missouri state line, features an extensive limestone cave with an underground stream and is home to rare bats and aquatic species. Above, the surface habitat is eastern deciduous forest. Additionally, the Twin Caves Preserve harbors a gray bat maternity colony of more than 20,000 individuals, as well as a critical habitat for the federally endangered Ozark cavefish and blind cave crayfish.

Charley Owl Preserve, comprising 864 acres, is also in eastern Oklahoma, near the Arkansas state line. The Charley Owl Preserve also contains a limestone cave with rare bats, including the federally endangered gray bat and the Ozark big-eared bat.

Eucha Nature Preserve, located in the eastern deciduous forests of Delaware County, is a 150-acre restricted preserve encompassing two limestone caves with underground streams that support rare aquatic species including the blind cavefish and the nearly translucent Ozark crayfish.

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 and 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 welcome and corresponding access may be obtained by contacting the Tulsa office at 918-585-1117.

Learn more about our work in Oklahoma and explore the other places we protect.