The Secret Life Of Caves Pigmentless grotto salamanders, blind Ozark cavefish and parasitic horsehair worms are a few of the animals living in Missouri's 6,000-plus caves. Ira Flatow and three expert spelunkers look at the biology, geology and history of underground attractions in the "Cave State."
NPR logo

The Secret Life Of Caves

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Secret Life Of Caves

The Secret Life Of Caves

The Secret Life Of Caves

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Pigmentless grotto salamanders, blind Ozark cavefish and parasitic horsehair worms are a few of the animals living in Missouri's 6,000-plus caves. Ira Flatow and three expert spelunkers look at the biology, geology and history of underground attractions in the "Cave State."


William Elliott, cave biologist/resource scientist, Missouri Department of Conservation, Cave Lab, Runge Conservation Nature Center, Jefferson City, Mo.

Robert Criss, professor, geology

Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

Scott House, president, Cave Research Foundation, Cave City, Kentucky


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Im Ira Flatow.

You've heard it called the Show-Me State. Here in St. Louis, they might call it the Pujols State, and maybe you know that Missouri is also known - you didn't know, maybe - that it's the cave state.

There are over 6,000 caves that dot the countryside here in Missouri. It's second only to Tennessee, and new caves are being discovered and mapped all the time.

And you know, caves are more than just a place for bears to spend the winter. They are diverse ecosystems, that they can be wet or dry. They can extend for miles. They can meander just below the surface, and if you enjoy swimming or diving in these underground streams, you may find the blind Ozark cave fish or cave salamanders hanging out on the rocks down below us.

So this hour, we're going to tour Missouri's caves a little bit. We're going to look at the biology and geology, and a little bit of the history of these worlds beneath our feet. And we are broadcasting from the St. Louis Science Center, and if you're here in the audience, I invite you to step up to the microphone. If you're on the telephone, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can also tweet us @scifri, and you can watch a live video stream. Go to our video link, that you'll find at our Web site, at

Let me introduce my guests. Scott House is president of the Cave Research Foundation. He comes from Cape Girardeau in Missouri. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. SCOTT HOUSE (President, Cave Research Foundation): Thanks, glad to be here.

FLATOW: And you also did a lot of work your organization is in Cave City, Kentucky, right?

Mr. HOUSE: Well, that's where our headquarters is. We also have operation in Missouri, Arkansas, California, New Mexico and various other places.

FLATOW: Cave City, it's got a nice ring to it.

Mr. HOUSE: It does, in fact.

FLATOW: Dr. Robert Criss is professor of geology at Washington University here in St. Louis. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. ROBERT CRISS (Professor of Geology, Washington University St. Louis): Hi.

FLATOW: Dr. William Elliott is a cave biologist and resource scientist at the Missouri Department of Conservation in Jefferson City. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. WILLIAM ELLIOTT (Cave Biologist, Resource Scientist, Missouri Department of Conservation, Cave Lab, Runge Conservation Nature Center): Hello.

FLATOW: Was I right, Scott, in that there are 6,000 caves and counting?

Mr. HOUSE: Yes. Every year, there's perhaps 100 to 150 new ones found even in this state. Of course, it's you're pushing the envelope a little bit because so many of the easy-to-find ones have already been found, but nonetheless, we continue to be surprised.

FLATOW: How do people find a cave? Is it the old plow in the ground, and suddenly there's a hole?

Mr. HOUSE: Pretty much you go out looking for them based on the geology and the topography of the area, and so a lot of time is spent ridge-walking and hunting for new cave entrances.

FLATOW: And does Missouri want to take over that mantle...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yes, he's shaking his head.

Mr. HOUSE: Sure, but I don't think we will. Tennessee has a lot more of upland limestone, and it's pretty riddled.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk, Robert Criss, about why there are caves here. He mentioned limestone. Does that where does the limestone come from?

Dr. CRISS: Well, this is mostly old Paleozoic rock in this area of the country. It's mostly Cambrian Ordovician, as well as Mississippian carbonates, limestones and (unintelligible) stones. And boy, just a lot of the state has this kind of soluble rock...

FLATOW: Well, where did the rock come from? Where did it originate from?

Dr. CRISS: It's ocean.

FLATOW: There was an ocean here a few years ago, right?

Dr. CRISS: Well, it's all Paleozoic, hundreds of millions...

FLATOW: Hundreds of millions of years ago, there was a big, inland ocean here, and so that sand is leftover and created the limestone that was left from the ocean.

Dr. CRISS: Well, it's sand we usually use. I mean, there are carbonate sands, but this is mostly shell relics and other a lot of limestones are actually chemical deposits, inorganic deposition of calcium carbonate from the ocean.

FLATOW: And how do you define a cave? Where does it just become a hole in the ground, and it's big enough to become a cave?

Dr. CRISS: According to Scott, a cave would be a hole in the ground that's enterable by a man.

FLATOW: How about a little boy, that's not a cave? They get lost I keep thinking of Missouri and Mark Twain, you know. Is that where that tale comes from of the Missouri caves?

Dr. CRISS: There is important use for small cavers on rescue missions and other things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. CRISS: I am not kidding. Some people just don't fit.

FLATOW: William Elliott, did Mark Twain do that whole thing with Tom Sawyer in caves because he was here in Missouri and...?

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yes, he grew up in Hannibal, and we think that he actually explored what they called McDowell Cave, but now it's called Mark Twain Cave -but he incorporated that into his stories.

FLATOW: Because Scott, what different kinds of caves? You know, most of us think a cave is a cave, but it's not just a cave, is it?

Mr. HOUSE: Yeah, it pretty much runs the gamut, you know, and we have caves that are developed by solution, and that's primarily what the caves are in Missouri, but you also have caves that are formed by tectonic processes, such as earth cracks.

And then you have out West a lot of lava tube caves, which are not formed by flowing water but by flowing molten rock.

FLATOW: But we don't have those here in...?

Mr. HOUSE: We don't have those here.

FLATOW: But we do have caves that and you can all jump in, that are very long underground.

Mr. HOUSE: We have very long caves in Missouri. There are five caves in Missouri that are over 15 miles in length, and so that's...

FLATOW: No rest stop in that.

Mr. HOUSE: No rest stop in that. These are large...

FLATOW: Do people hike them actually?

Mr. HOUSE: Well, hike is probably indicates that you'd be on two legs walking around, and a lot of what we do involves four legs, so to speak - crawling. So you can traverse them, let's put it that way.

FLATOW: What Bill, what is the largest cave in the state? How long - how many miles?

Dr. ELLIOTT: Well, Scott is very familiar with Crevice Cave over in Perry County, I believe 28 miles of surveyed cave.

Mr. HOUSE: That's correct.

Dr. ELLIOTT: That's not just one length. I mean, that is, like, a street map of a city, you know. It's quite complex.

FLATOW: And these all have been explored extensively?

Mr. HOUSE: We don't consider a length unless it's actually been surveyed, so...

FLATOW: That sounds like dangerous work.

Mr. HOUSE: Well, it can be uncomfortable work, let's put it that way, and it can be dangerous. I mean, caves are like any other environment. Either you're prepared for them, or you're not, and if you're not, you probably shouldn't be in them, and if you're prepared, then they aren't that dangerous.

FLATOW: And Bill, caves can be wet, they can be dry, they can underwater, what, all different ways.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yes, we have a wonderful variety of caves in this state and throughout the nation, but Missouri is renowned for its big, muddy caves with unctuous, red clay, which is a famous term invented by a geologist back in the '50s who wrote a famous book about Missouri caves, J. Harlen Bretz, and we know that that's true because we come out of these caves with this red stain all over us. It doesn't wash out of your clothing very well.

FLATOW: Wow. You know, I know that you have taken extensive photographs of things that you find in caves. We have them on our Web site, at, a link to your photographs. And how many different kinds of things - creepy, crawly things - are living in there?

Dr. ELLIOTT: You would be amazed. We have got over 6,000 caves, and according to our databases now, over 900 species recorded in those caves. Of those, about 82 are actually cave-adapted, cave-limited creatures, that is what we call troglobytes or troglobiants.

FLATOW: And like you see in the oceans, I noticed in some of the for example on some of the fish, they've lost their sight ability, right?

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yes, yes, through long periods of evolution, many of them have lost their eyes and their pigmentation; but at the same time, they have other adaptations for living in the dark in a food-poor environment.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get a quick phone call or two in here, Chris(ph) in Madisonville, Kentucky. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I really appreciate it, and a great topic.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

CHRIS: I was interested to know if your guest is familiar with or has found anything really unexpected during cave exploration? You mentioned different wildlife and so forth. I was wondering about pirate treasure or anything really crazy.

FLATOW: Pirate gold and...

Dr. ELLIOTT: Well, I'm not going to tell you about the treasure I found, okay? But I will tell you about some of the critters that found me. When I was a young man exploring caves in Mexico, I found the world's most-cave-adapted scorpion on my blue jeans.

CHRIS: Interesting.

Dr. ELLIOTT: And so I'm a walking type locality, as it were.

FLATOW: And you survived to tell the tale.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yes, but this little guy was less than a centimeter long, exquisitely elongated, almost transparent, no color, no eyes, and it is considered today the most-cave-adapted scorpion in the world, but it actually found me first.

But for Missouri, I was lucky enough to be on a team about 10 years ago, and we found a new species of crayfish in a cave in Missouri, in a very obscure, small cave, and it is a new species to science, and that was exciting.

FLATOW: Does it have your name or anything?

Dr. ELLIOTT: No, it doesn't have my name. It was actually a team effort. So it wasn't really appropriate to name it after me, but I do have 11 species named after me by other biologists.

FLATOW: Wow, wow, and they just jump on top of you, and they discover you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yeah, I'm lucky that way.

FLATOW: Scott, you've been surprised by any one thing?

Mr. HOUSE: I'm always surprised. I mean, it's hard to say. You know, every time you go into a cave, every cave is different, and every cave is unique, and so anything out of the ordinary, I mean, every cave holds new wonders for us. So it's very difficult to answer that exactly, but there's always something fascinating.

FLATOW: Is there a book maybe you have one is there a book of things to see in a cave?

Dr. ELLIOTT: Well, there's lots of books.

FLATOW: Books like guidebooks, if you go to someplace, you get a guidebook, and there's a cave guidebook, like a field guide to a cave.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Right, all you have to do is Google the Internet, and you'll find lots of beautiful books on caves. One of the most spectacular caves in the world, of course, is Lechuguilla Cave, in New Mexico, just astounding.

FLATOW: Do you have is there one specifically for Missouri, what you see in Missouri caves?

Dr. ELLIOTT: There's a nice coffee-table book on caves of the Ozarks written by some Missourians back about 10 or 15 years ago.

FLATOW: Do they mention specific caves, you'll see these things in them?

Dr. ELLIOTT: No, they do not.

FLATOW: Why not?

Dr. ELLIOTT: Not usually, because many of those caves are protected only by secrecy or obscurity. If their locations were revealed to the public, some people not people in this room of course would go there and destroy them. They would rip off all the speleothems, the cave formations, sell them on the black market, look for archeological artifacts, sell them on the black market.

These are problems we actually have. So you'll find that some cavers are quite guarded about revealing cave location information, only to the owners, perhaps, and to trusted colleagues.

FLATOW: Scott, I've got about a minute, if you want to comment on that, or wait until we get after the break.

Mr. HOUSE: I would follow up with that three-fourths of the caves in Missouri are on private lands, and private landowners have their private property rights, and any release of information about features that are these private lands would violate that trust.

FLATOW: Okay, good point. We're talking with Scott House, Robert Criss and William Elliot. You can see Bill Elliott's great photos of what you can see inside a cave, all this different kinds of stuff, on our Web site at So you can surf over there while we're taking a break.

And we're going to take a break and come back and take lots more of your calls, our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I and also in Second Life, hang out with the folks around there in SCIENCE FRIDAY Island. We'll be right back after this break. So stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're here in St. Louis talking about caves, and St. Louis Missouri being the Cave State, among other things. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, lots of questions. Let's go right here to the audience for one.

Unidentified Man #1 (Audience Member): Yes, I was wondering, we're always talking about the environmental impacts we're having in the oceans and in forest ecosystems and such. What's it like in the caves? How protected are they from...?

FLATOW: Bob Criss, you study that...

Dr. CRISS: Sure, I think we actually don't do as well as good a job as we should in protecting caves and the lands above them. There's a more general problem of just not adapting realistic geological and hierologic constraints in the way we develop land in general.

In St. Louis County, we develop in flood plains. I've seen many places in our own county where we level the topography above sinkholes and put plants houses right on top of them.

So there are many places in St. Louis County, we incorporate storm-water drainage directly under the cave systems. Caves are viewed as a great way to move storm water away because they're natural pipes.

This causes flash floods in caves. This causes great sedimentation in caves. This causes temperature fluctuation in caves and a whole lot of other physical changes to the caves. It also is a rapid means for conveying surface pollutants into the sub-surface environment.

All these changes are devastating to this sub-surface ecosystem that Elliott knows about, just because these organisms are so adapted to a stable environment.

FLATOW: And you also, when we talked about this before the break, is that these caves are vulnerable to vandalism and other people running around in there, right? Just, I remember years ago, I did a TV show called "Newton's Apple." We went to a cave in Puerto Rico, and it was very well-kept, and there were thousands of stalactites hanging off the ceiling, and it was only about three feet, the cave, and my head broke one of them. He said, you just killed 10,000 years.

Dr. CRISS: Right.

FLATOW: And that was I was very upset about that because that took that long for that little stalactite to develop.

Dr. CRISS: Yeah, a lot of times when we talk about managing caves, we really talk about managing people.

FLATOW: About what's going on. I can't believe that there's that kind of vandalism that you talked about.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Right, and some of that connects to impacts on the wildlife, too. For example, illegal pot hunting we've found in many cases also disturbs bat colonies, and we've had to try to control that. Trying to control the behavior of the criminal mind when you're not there to watch them is rather difficult. So some new technology is being looked at, electronic security systems for some of the really high-priority caves.

FLATOW: Yeah, and we have a video on our Web site, and we'll talk about this a little bit later, of how you're trying to close up some of the caves.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Right, not all of them but some of the really important ones, especially that have endangered species of bats.

FLATOW: And yeah, sure, Scott.

Mr. HOUSE: And by close up, what you mean is gate, restrict human access to, not really close the entrance.

FLATOW: Yeah, 1-800-989-8255. Ted(ph) in, is it Lee Summit, Missouri?

TED (Caller): Yes, it is.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

TED: Hi, Ira, I love the show.

FLATOW: Thank you, go ahead.

TED: I took a speleology class at SMS in Springfield. And quick story, we went to map a cave in Monett, Missouri. And we spent probably two hours crawling, you know, like a gopher in a hole, covered with clay from head to toe. And then it was easier to get through the hole on our back, as we went one at a time, me and another friend in the class, and we opened up into about an 85-foot-tall room.

So you can imagine squeezing and looking up suddenly with, you know, the wall an inch above your nose, and then all of a sudden, it opened up to this big room, and it was just wonderful, great experience.

FLATOW: Maybe you can imagine that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But I'm not going into that little hole an inch above, you know that's a great story. Typical story?

Mr. HOUSE: Sure, sure, absolutely.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

TED: Okay.

FLATOW: Is there a possibility that people can get stuck in these little holes if they go in...

Dr. ELLIOTT: They do, they do.

Mr. HOUSE: Absolutely.

Dr. CRISS: Not me, though.

FLATOW: Not you?

Dr. CRISS: Well, there's an old adage, that is wrong, that goes something like: Whatever you can get into, you can get out of. And that's not true. A lot of people have gotten into things that they have not successfully gotten out of, and in the last several months, there was a death from somebody who wedged themselves upside-down into a hole and then died.

FLATOW: From lack of air?

Dr. CRISS: Lack well, just upside-down, wedged in, couldn't be extracted.

FLATOW: Let's move on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Just the thought of that. Go ahead, Robert.

Dr. CRISS: My strategy is I like to cave with a guy named Bob Osborne(ph). He's really big, and I just if he can get through, I just send him first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ELLIOTT: Excellent idea.

FLATOW: Or if a bear can get in there, you can get in there, and...

Dr. CRISS: Oh, no, the bear actually get into a very small space.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Unbelievable.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Dr. CRISS: Yes, they are amazingly acrobatic. I mean, they can twist we have found what we call bear beds deep into caves where, for the bear to get there, they had to crawl for thousands of feet and climb 15, 20 feet up a wall, and then they made their winter hibernation spot.

FLATOW: Well, you have never gotten your head in the hole and looked up and have a bear looking back at you, have you?

Dr. CRISS: No, that behavior is pretty well gone from Missouri bears.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Pretty much vanished, and we still see their beds, and that's interesting, bear beds, where they used to hibernate, and sometimes I'll curl up in one just to demonstrate to my classes that bears used to use those. But we don't have bears currently using caves in Missouri. They seem to have forgotten them.

FLATOW: One thing that you have in Missouri, and I've seen them all over the country and the world, are bats, right? There are a lot of bats in caves.

Dr. ELLIOTT: We have many species of bats in Missouri. About 12 species are usually resident in about half of those used caves at some time or another during the year.

FLATOW: Well, back East, we've been following something called white-nose syndrome, which is killing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of bats, millions. Has it been making its way across the country here?

Dr. ELLIOTT: It is moving gradually south and west. It's gotten into eastern Tennessee this winter. Your conservation department here, where I work, we are working on a white-nose action plan where we fully expect white-nose syndrome to make its way into Missouri within a year, maybe two or three years. We want to be ready.

Right now, we have very few tools to prevent it, except disinfecting our caving gear. A lot of cavers are already, in good faith, doing that to prevent accidental spread of the spores, but we know that it also travels with the bats and maybe even on the wind. And so it may eventually get here, and we'll have a number of strategies in Missouri for trying to reduce the impact.

FLATOW: Let's go to the audience here. Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #2 (Audience Member): Hi. In the history of St. Louis, I know a lot of companies used caves along the river for things like the Lemp Brewery. They used them to you know, they stored beer down there to keep it cool, and they actually, I know they hosted parties at an underground theater by their mansion.

And I was just wondering, I know that a lot of people go, you know, spelunking and exploring of caves. Do people still use them for, I guess, it's what I could call practical purposes, keeping it stored down there.

FLATOW: Scott House?

Mr. HOUSE: Yes, one of the I mean, you see a lot of things stored in caves, and of course, with refrigeration and electricity in the Ozarks, that isn't happening as much anymore, but there are still a lot of records of them being used as root cellars, beer caves. There are still very-large-entrance caves in Missouri that are being used for the storage of agricultural implements, tractors and hay and such. So caves are still used for a lot of different there's a winery in Missouri that's in a cave.

FLATOW: I was in I saw a cave in Hawaii that was still - had remnants of being a fallout shelter and storing the old stuff in there from the '50s, remember?

Mr. HOUSE: Yeah, and that's that was a bad idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ELLIOTT: It was.

Mr. HOUSE: Because what they imagined what these caves were cut off from outside air circulation, and that's not true whatsoever, so...

Dr. ELLIOTT: No, they're not immune from the outside, and that's one of the things that we three try to teach is that caves are part of the real world. They're not some mysterious dimension, divorced from the world, especially in a state like Missouri. Caves are all around. They're part of the landscape, and they're intimately tied to everything that's going on.

FLATOW: So if you want to stop the spread of the white-nose syndrome, then you may have to limit people spreading it with their feet, maybe tramping through caves from one to the other.

Mr. HOUSE: Yes, there is still the possibility that that occurs. We think it probably is spread more from bat to bat, especially during the fall swarming, where bats meet up at certain cave entrances, circulate around. It's sort of like a promenade except on the wing, and they meet the opposite sex and mate and so on, and sometimes you'll have four species of bats co-mingling.

And there are other times at which bats, during hibernation, if they cluster, may accidentally transfer the fungus to each other. So it's a real problem. There are researchers working on this problem, and we will also try to control the problem if it reaches here by giving the bats plenty of quiet time.

It has been discovered in Pennsylvania recently that disturbing hibernating bats that have white nose syndrome is very disastrous.

FLATOW: Hmm. Interesting.

Dr. ELLIOTT: It exacerbates the mortality rate.

FLATOW: Let's go to Zach in Iowa city. Hi, Zach.

ZACH (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go...

ZACH: I wanted to relate just an - a fond memory I have. A couple of years ago, I went to Sheep Caves in Meramec State Park in Missouri with my two young daughters. One was two and the other was three. And we found - we didn't go in very far, but we found - we love little critters. I'm always trying to catch little critters and show the kids. And my girls really love that stuff.

And we found, wriggling around in the pools of ice cold water, a - something that - it was about an inch long. And I thought at first it was a worm or a snake. And it took me a long time to catch it. But when I caught it and looked closely, it was a tiny, little salamander. And I had never seen - I haven't seen a whole lot of salamanders, anyway.

FLATOW: Bill probably has a picture of it on his...

Dr. ELLIOTT: Probably do, yeah.

FLATOW: What do you think it was?

Dr. ELLIOTT: We have a little booklet that's available to the public in Missouri for free called "A Guide to Missouri's Cave Life," and it's got pictures of little salamander larvae like that, genus Eurycea.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

ZACH: Well, would it have been a larva then, that small?

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yes. Right.

ZACH: Yeah.

Dr. ELLIOTT: When they grow up, they may become any of three different species that we see in our Ozark caves, could be the cave salamander, the dark-sided salamander, or even the grotto salamander, which really is cave-adapted.

FLATOW: Thanks, Zach. Let's get a question here from the audience.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Audience Member): Hi. I'm interested in knowing where some good caves would be for the general public to walk into...

FLATOW: An easy cave.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah. Without being covered in unctuous clay or any amount of (unintelligible).

FLATOW: And an inch above your head as the ceiling. Yeah, Scott's got one for us, I think.

Mr. HOUSE: My first recommendation would be try out federal agencies and state agencies. And the Missouri State Park system has several very fine caves that you can tour and get a very educational tour of. Included in that would Fisher Cave in Meramec State Park, Onondaga Cave in Onondaga Cave State Park, Ozark Caverns of Lake of the Ozarks State Park. That would be your first stop.

Now, if you wanted a wild cave, my best recommendation would be to get with a caving group, an organized group. There are several different chapters in the National Speleological Society here in St. Louis. And they don't do public tours, but if you're really interested in caving, that's an avenue to take.

But I would stay with the state parks' caves that are developed for people, because you're doing less damage to the cave when you go into a cave that is developed for the public. They have walkways that confine you, and you get a good tour.

FLATOW: We're talking about cave this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, here at the St. Louis Science Center in St. Louis.

Also, they may be more - less toxic. I mean, aren't there diseases -histoplasmosis, something like that? You could really get sick in some of these caves.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yeah. I've studied histoplasmosis. I grew up in Texas, where it is endemic in some of the bat guano. Also, it's common in chicken coups and bird aviaries. But it does not seem to be much of a problem in Missouri, thank goodness. We do have bat guano here, of course, in gray bat caves, but I have not heard of any outbreaks of histo among Missouri cavers. Scott, have you heard any?

Mr. HOUSE: One from about 40 years ago, yeah.

FLATOW: Is that what they used to think, that it was the curse of the mummies, was histoplasmosis?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ELLIOTT: I don't know. It's endemic in bird and bat guano. It's a fungus that - the spores float around in the air you breath, and...

FLATOW: Yeah. I know somebody who got it, but not in this - not in caves in Missouri.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yeah. And it can put you in the hospital, all right. And it's bad stuff.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's interesting, because if you go to your doctor, sometimes they think, well, you have to be in some tropical climate to get this thing. And they won't treat it, you know.

Dr. ELLIOTT: It's more semi-tropical and tropical in Texas, Mexico. And cavers in the south are generally very resistant to it because they grew up with it. But you never develop perfect immunity.

FLATOW: Right. Let's go to a question here. Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified Female #2 (Audience Member): Hi. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the cool adaptations that the critters have and if there's one - you know, what's the coolest you've seen, and if there's any, sort of, genetic adaptations that they have that humans might try to use for something else.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yeah, well, besides losing their eyes in pigment, they have a lot of positive adaptations. Let's talk about cave fish. They may have - a lot of the cave animals have elongated appendages. They have very efficient locomotion. They can eat almost anything. They have a longer lifespan, smaller clutch size. They lay fewer eggs, but the eggs tend to be larger.

With some of the cave fishes that had been studied, say, in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, they have greater spatial memory. They can remember where they've been for a long time. So there's lots of adaptations in the invertebrates like cave crayfish and so on - and beetles, even - that may have extremely long appendages - antennae, legs - to efficiently move over long distances and also to feel the environment.

Some of the cave fishes have - their whole body is covered with vibration detectors, and they can - you can watch them in an aquarium. They used to keep one at Mammoth Cave. I don't know if - anymore.

Mr. HOUSE: No. They don't.

Dr. ELLIOTT: But you could watch it approach the wall of the aquarium and then stop and turn. It knew where that was just from the pressure waves.

FLATOW: So should people be fearful of what they're going to find, if they're going to find...

Dr. ELLIOTT: No. There's really very few things in caves that are that harmful. People imagine snakes. They're usually only at the entrance zone because, snakes being cold-blooded, really don't like the cool environment in caves and they're not well adapted for that. Occasionally, we'll see a black rat snake in Missouri, grabbing bats at the cave entrance, getting a meal. But, generally, there's not much of anything dangerous.

We have seen raccoons, far end of the dark zone of caves, even as far as two miles, have been in a cave...


Dr. ELLIOTT: ...two miles and seen raccoon prints. But they dont attack us or anything. They're very shy.

FLATOW: You think there's a lot more to be discovered, more species in there?

Dr. ELLIOTT: Yes. Definitely, I've looked at that issue, and I think we will -in fact, there are some undescribed species now that are waiting to be described. But since there is a decrease in taxonomists in the world, they may never get described.

FLATOW: Well, come to Missouri, then.

Dr. ELLIOTT: Right.

FLATOW: If you want to...

Dr. ELLIOTT: And other states have that, too.

FLATOW: Thank you, gentlemen. We've run out of time. I want to thank Scott House, president of the Cave Research Foundation, Robert Criss, professor of geology at Washington University in St. Louis, and William Elliot, a cave biologist and resource scientist at the Missouri Department of Conservation in Jefferson City. And we have a lot of his photos up on our Web site at, if you want to see all those critters running around in the caves. Thank you all for taking time to be with us.

We're going to take a break, and we're going to come back and talk about green, the greenhouse, green housing, how you might turn green - and of the greenest structures in the country, right here in Missouri. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.