Save the caves? A Washington University professor in St. Louis warned Wednesday that Missouri, often called the Cave State, is losing too many of its caves to development.
"A lot of caves have been filled in, or entrances blocked, or bulldozed over," said Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor Robert Criss. "As we develop, I just wish we'd give a little more thought to what we're doing to the natural world."
While many of Missouri's best-known caves are protected, there doesn't seem to be any established protocol for protecting hundreds of other caves from development, he said, a sentiment echoed elsewhere in the state.
Many times, "We look at caves as a way to entertain us, and not as a resource that we should protect," said Matt Forir, naturalist for Springfield-Greene County.
Missouri has an international reputation among scientists, caving enthusiasts and tourists.
Consider that Missouri is home to Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal, believed to have provided the inspiration for the cave in the books "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn;" it has Meramec Caverns in Stanton, once used as a hideout for Jesse James, and it also features Bridal Cave outside of Camdenton, where more than 2,000 couples have tied the knot.
Forir is the executive director at Riverbluff Cave on the outskirts of Springfield, an Ice Age cave that is slowly yielding fossil treasures preserved since it was sealed off at least 55,000 years ago. Just Tuesday, he said they found a fossil of a 3-foot-long armadillo that lived an estimated 500,000 years ago.
The well-known caves have protections in place and are not in jeopardy.
But Criss, Washington University geologist G.R. Osburn and graduate students Jennifer Lippmann and Everett Criss, Robert Criss' son, studied many of the 127 reported caves in St. Louis County, an area separate from the city of St. Louis.
While their findings primarily document many of the caves, and are directed toward a scientific audience, they found that more than 10 percent have been altered or obliterated by suburban expansion in the county over time.
Their paper, the Caves of St. Louis County, was recently published in the journal Missouri Speleology. Speleology is the exploration and study of caves.
They located and examined caves in St. Louis County, tried to clear up any discrepancies in historical reports, and entered pre-existing reports into the Missouri Speleological Survey electronic database.
Forir said the work the group had done was important to update and add to knowledge about the caves.
He, too, believes more can be done to protect lesser-known caves.
Animals that live in caves are often small and fragile, he said. If caves are destroyed, that can reduce populations of those creatures.
The researchers in St. Louis County said caves are homes to creatures including bats, salamanders, the Ozark cave crayfish and others. Some animals, like raccoons and bears also use caves, they said.
Furthermore, "caves are nothing more than underground pipes that serve for the movement of groundwater," Forir said. In rural areas, many towns have well water or get their water from sources that are spring fed, he said.
He said not all caves carry water, but for those that do, tampering with caves could divert groundwater to a different area, leading to erosion or a sinkhole somewhere else.
Caves also are a feature of karst terrain, a type of topography marked by sinkholes, springs, and a type of stream that gurgles into the ground in spots and resurfaces in other areas, Criss said.
"We're losing things we're not even aware that we're losing," he said.
Phone calls to a few trade organizations that represent builders in Missouri, to see if they wanted to speak to the issue generally, were not immediately returned.
Criss said, "My mission is not to find fault and point fingers, but to elevate an appreciation for the natural world."