Image: Gaunt
Researcher David Gaunt views mineral formations in the Riverbluff Cave near Springfield, Mo.
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updated 9/22/2003 11:45:19 AM ET 2003-09-22T15:45:19

Paleontologist Matt Forir expected to find another 50-foot, trash-filled pit when he went to investigate a cave unearthed by construction workers in southwest Missouri. He could not have been more wrong. The dynamite that blasted into limestone for a new road in Greene County unveiled proof that 1,400-pound short-faced bears roamed the Ozarks during the Ice Age, and they struggled with arthritis and gout.

InsertArt(2021312)FORIR AND OTHER RESEARCHERS are also investigating the possibility that herds of peccary — piglike animals — sought shelter in caves thousands of years ago, as opposed to being dragged in by predators for food.

“Everywhere you look in here, you find something significant,” said Forir, president of Missouri Speleological Survey.

Icicle-shaped stalactites, flowstone and soda straws created from countless drops of mineral-laden water might even prove useful for scientists.

“There’s no question this cave is a picture to the past,” said Kenneth C. Thomson, Southwest Missouri State geology professor and cave expert.

Missouri has more than 5,700 registered caves. But researchers think this one, formally known as Riverbluff Cave, holds infinite research possibilities. They believe there might be enough evidence of Ice Age animals inside to give it national prominence.

The scientists are examining animal tracks and dung.

“It certainly indicates that maybe they were using these caves in a social sense, where herds of them were going in to get out of bad weather,” said Greg McDonald, a peccary expert and paleontological project coordinator for National Park Service in Denver.

“It raises all kinds of interesting questions as far as what the importance of caves was in the natural history of these animals.”

The cave had remained closed until Sept. 11, 2001, when construction workers stumbled onto it while building a road on the outskirts of Springfield, the state’s third largest city. Forir wasn’t expecting much when he arrived at the site.

But initial research shows most of the large formations likely formed during the Pleistocene Era, the period from about 1.8 million to about 13,000 years ago.

Also revealed are bear claw marks too big for any modern-day animal. Equally puzzling were the peccary tracks and turtle shells deep inside the cave.

“We call it our own Ice Age time capsule,” said Dave Coonrod, presiding commissioner of Greene County, which decided to seal the cave for six months so the road could be completed and researchers could develop a plan for exploring its treasures.

Eventually, however, word of the discovery leaked out, and vandals stormed in. They carved into a centuries-old calcite column, trampled delicate skeletal remains of a snake and removed ancient mineral formations.

Most of the damage has been cleaned up and security has been tightened. But those familiar with the cave have continued to closely guard its location. Neighbors also have become protectors.

“People that have something in their back yard tend to get very excited about it and very proud, which is only right. But in this case it seems to be very justified,” McDonald said.

Forir, the 29-year-old paleontologist, his two research assistants and Thomson, have been slowly working to map and study the cave centimeter-by-centimeter.

“This project will outlive me,” Forir said.

CLAW MARKS OF AN EXTINCT BEARSo far, they have uncovered claw marks about two feet long and seven inches wide and believed to be the front paw of a now-extinct short-faced bear. The largest black bear ever found in Missouri had a forepaw measure five inches across.

“The short-faced bear is the T-Rex of the Ice Age,” Forir said.

There also is a trio of extinct tortoises embedded in a wall. One fossil is believed to be about a foot long, more than twice the length of a modern-day box turtle shell.

“The easy part is identifying what it is,” Forir said. “The hard part is determining what it’s doing here. Most of these animals don’t belong in a cave, and yet they’re here.”

Among the curiosities is the discovery of several peccary bones in a passageway.

“It’s the only cave in the world with actual documented peccary tracks,” Forir said.

The team hopes to eventually determine a timeline for the cave, but recrystalization has made that difficult. Members compare it to a clock losing power during an outage. When power is restored, time resumes from the point the clock stopped ticking. It doesn’t automatically indicate how long the power was off.

“It makes dating useless because we can only go back to the point that recrystalization occurred,” said David Gaunt, a Southwest Missouri State geology student and one of the research assistants.

The county has spent about $50,000, some of it to move the planned road several feet to protect the cave’s pristine features. In tight budget times, Coonrod has had to fight hard to fund the project.

“In my mind it’s a way we can learn from history,” Coonrod said. “We should be able to see what mistakes were made, and how we can improve.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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