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Ozark cave owner rescues rare crayfish

June 14, 2019

OZARK, Mo. (AP) — Their ghostly pale color is the first hint these critters prefer the deep darkness of caves.

And bristly cave crayfish are so rare they’ve only been found in caves in nine counties in Missouri and Arkansas.

At Smallin Civil War Cave in Ozark, a tour group recently got to see some of the clawed critters, though one of them clearly had a chunk taken out of its back. It’s a creature rare enough that the cave owner decided to rescue it, the Springfield News-Leader reported.

“I captured it and stuck it in a tub,” said Kevin Bright, co-owner of Smallin Cave. “It had a bite mark on its side, most likely from a raccoon that probably got it. Maybe it got one of its pincer claws on the raccoon’s nose and got away.”

The wounded crayfish managed to survive and appears well on its way to eventually shedding its exoskeleton and becoming whole again. The crayfish was recently released into the chilly creek inside Smallin Cave, hopefully wiser for its encounter with a predator.

“I’m always encouraged when I find private landowners like Kevin and Wanetta Bright, who have a passion for protecting the natural resources on their property,” said Dave Ashley, a retired Missouri Western State University biology professor who has been studying rare cave crayfish for more than a decade.

He’s been conducting an ongoing survey of the bristly cave crayfish at Smallin Cave for 12 years and was glad Bright took the time to rescue this injured one. Although not endangered, bristly cave crayfish have such a tiny range in a small corner of the Ozarks that they have been listed as a “species of conservation concern” by the state of Missouri.

“People almost never see bristly cave crayfish,” Ashley said. “Smallin is the only commercial cave in the Ozarks where people can go on a tour and very likely see a bristly cave crayfish.”

Ashley was back inside Smallin Cave again earlier this month, with student researchers who have been marking and recording the elusive bristlys along a 400-meter stretch of the cave. Using nets to scoop up the critters, the crayfish are weighed and measured and their sex determined.

So far, Ashley said that stretch of Smallin Cave has yielded a steady population of about 100 bristly cave crayfish, though he believes many more may live in the farther reaches of the cave.

Their numbers are a good indicator of the cave’s environmental health, he said. Because it’s such an enclosed system, any pollutants flowing into the cave stream from the surface could result in a bunch of dead, rare bristlys.

So far that hasn’t happened.

“Absolutely they’re an indicator of cave health,” he said. “You know, when the settlers first started digging wells, the folklore of the time was that if they found blind cave fish or blind crayfish in their wells, it was an indicator the water was pure enough to drink.”

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Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com

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