By Vanessa Madden
The year is 1722, French explorer Philipp Renault, guided by Osage Indian legends, emerges from the mist on the Meramec River. Just as the Osage had told him, a large opening could be seen in the bluff above. A cave of gold was waiting to be discovered………. But, as is often the case when French explorers read too much into Osage legends, the promise of gold was never realized. However, the caves along the Meramec River do contain one of nature’s greatest treasures, bats. I doubt the bats made much of an impression on Renault. But at the time, the numerous passageways of this 4.6 mile cavern system undoubtedly provided plentiful wintering and roosting habitat for native bats. Today we know that Missouri caves are home to 14 species of bats (learn about Missouri bats), three of which are federally endangered (Indiana Bat, Gray Bat, and The Ozark Big-Eared). Unfortunately, the cave was not to be left alone. Saltpeter was discovered. Saltpeter was an important resource at the time because it was a key ingredient in gunpowder. What followed was 144 years of mining saltpeter out of the cave, which ended when Confederate troops destroyed a Union gunpowder plant operating inside the cave itself. My guess is that blowing up large amounts of gunpowder was a bit annoying to the bats. Things quieted down a bit after the civil war. The cave was sometimes used by local residents for summer parties and dances. However, people are curious. Word spread of the beautiful features inside the cave. So, in the 1930’s, the cave was opened to the public. Today, tours are conducted year around.
Mankind’s use of the cave over the last 300 years has greatly affected the ability of bats to use the cave as habitat. Many of the original entrances and passageways were sealed off, in an attempt to keep trespassers out of the cave. Year around tours have driven the bats into quieter caves nearby. Perhaps the most unexpected threat to the cave ecosystem was the discovery that groundwater contamination at a nearby hazardous waste site was impacting the cave’s air and water quality.
Ironically, all of the historical causes of declining bat populations pale in comparison to the potential affect of a little fungus known as G. destructans or “white-nose syndrome.” Just as its name implies, this fungus has destroyed over 5 million bats in North America, and it is spreading. The human story of this cave is one of adventurers, outlaws, and entrepreneurs. Nature’s story, however, is one of encroachment and loss. Much has been written about the value of bats to mankind. For example, they consume vast quantities of insects (600/hour according to University of Missouri researchers) and pollinate plants. Perhaps more importantly, they have an intrinsic value that we all can recognize. Now, with native bats facing perhaps their greatest challenge yet, we must do all that we can to protect these diminutive creatures. Venessa Madden is a Midwestern girl who grew up playing in creeks and pastures. Exploring nature motivated her to become an ecologist. She has been with EPA for 14 years, and currently works as an ecological risk assessor. She is a past winner of EPA’s prestigious James W. Ackerman Award for Ecological Risk Assessment, and conducted a first ever Baseline Ecological Risk Assessment which included evaluating an inhalation pathway for bats.