Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tumbling Creek Cave

Amazing Cave
On Saturday, an intrepid group of Master Naturalists* braved the heat to explore the land as well as the depths of the Ozark Underground Laboratory at Protem.  This remarkable 2600 acre site represents the incredible passion and chutzpah of its owners, Tom and Cathy Aley.
What else could explain the success they have had in buying a cave and spending over 30 years in protecting its 9 square mile watershed?  In their spare time they have invested in a wide variety of conservation projects, including an advanced septic system for a nearby school, all to protect a unique snail (and while they are at it, other unique threatened species and all the rest of the environment.
It is impossible to hear Tom's humor-laced lessons of the interaction of water, rock, chemistry and animals (humans included) without being swept along like water through our karst topography.  A brief description of the tour is found at their web site under Field Programs- Surface and Underground Tours.

Webworm- Jennifer Ailor- Click to enlarge
One highlight was finding the fungus webworm.  OK, it sounds like a weird highlight but stick with me.  They spin their webs of long vertical strands in small rocky shelves.  The tiny worm hangs suspended from a series of vertical silk threads which it travels across in search of small flies and other trapped critters which depend on bat guano for their imported nutrition. 
After 9 months of growth and development, it forms a pupa, much like a butterfly except a tiny gnat emerges.  The fungus gnat lives its brief anonymous life around the entrance to a cave.  After unseen mating, it flies deep into the darkness, looking for an area rich with bat guano.  There it deposits it eggs to resume the cycle.
Webworm-- Click to enlarge
The detailed Fungus Webworm story from Dr. David Ashley is here.

Webworm dining picture is here.
There is a story about Tumbling Creek Cave in Weird Missouri.

Survivors of the Expedition to Tumbling Creek include Marlyss Simmons, Allan Keller, Jaretta Beard, Caryn Fox and her husband Steve, Bob and Barb Kipfer, Billy Thigpen and Linda Coroleuski from Sierra Club and our fearless leader Jennifer Ailor.

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