Beneath our feet broods another world, a darker Kentucky, a Kentucky of secret crawlways and vast caverns, of bottomless pits and cathedral-like domes. Twisting tunnels and rushing underground rivers beckon the human spirit, eternally drawn to lightless chasms. In a world unlike any aboveground, Kentucky caves promise a richness of invaluable resources, history, legend, and lore.
Kentucky caves have always drawn more than human visitors. Countless species of animals have sheltered at varied depths inside the caves, some only for brief periods, others for their entire lifetimes. In fact, several species have so evolved that they cannot survive outside the lightless cave environs. Often without functioning eyes and little if any color, these deep cave denizens are named troglobites and survive in a totally lightless world. Researchers like Dr. Robin Cooper of the University of Kentucky study creatures such as the colorless cave crayfish to better understand these amazing and uniquely specialized animals.
According to Dr. Cooper, "Cave life is so unique that it just has to be preserved. Some of these cave animals may only live in one cave and nowhere else in the world. Some species of crayfish, fish, and shrimp only live in Kentucky." He strongly believes that, "Many of the cave animals need to be listed as endangered species, but people have not had the time to get all the information gathered... It is a lot of red tape and expense to go through. Sad to say, but we will probably see some cave species going extinct in our lifetime."
Perhaps best-known and least-liked of all cave dwellers, bats still provide guano mined as fertilizer for farms today. Without bat guano Kentucky's caves could not have provided necessary saltpeter for gunpowder to win the War of 1812. According to East Kentucky Power Cooperative's biologist Jeff Hohman, Kentucky bats are usually as "small as a human thumb and harmless." In fact, Mark Gumbert, also of East Kentucky Power, insists, "Bats are essential to our environment, keeping insect pests in check, eating their weight in insects nightly. We don't realize what bats do for us. They keep a balance. Without bats, we'd notice!"
Kentucky's bats aren't the blood-sucking monsters of horror movies. Actually they are extremely fragile, slow to reproduce, and need public conservation efforts to survive.
Hohman, manager of natural resources for East Kentucky Power Cooperative, explains their department's work: "We do rare and endangered species surveys for all proposed construction projects for East Kentucky Power Cooperative. We do a lot of netting all summer to determine if there are any endangered species affected by our tree clearing." In addition to bats, they work with salamanders, but, "We don't work with troglobites, the deep cave dwellers. Bats are our main concern.
"As another side of our job, we take environmental educational programs to school kids," Hohman says. "The most popular program is reptiles and amphibians. We use live animals on that." But for bat programs, he says, "We use Beanie Baby bats in the classroom. Live bats don't do well. If the bat escapes, everybody freaks out."
He urges people to remember cave animals: "When you're in a cave, you're in their home. Respect that. People build campfires in caves, leave trash, and spray paint. There's hardly a cave in Kentucky that doesn't have an Ale-8-One bottle in it." He reminds us that cave country, "is a rare ecological area."
A world of mystery and awesome wonders, right below our feet, Kentucky caves provide a resource many of us barely realize exists. They are a source of rich legend and lore, sheltering runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad, nurturing mushroom farms, hiding outlaws, or possibly holding the key to lost treasures. Caves are dark and fascinating arenas full of challenge, adventure, and responsibility as we are called to protect our invaluable Kentucky underground.
Save Kentucky Caves
Don't make the same mistakes that trapped Floyd Collins and led to his death.
1. Don't explore a cave ALONE or without proper equipment.
2. Do take experienced cavers.
3. Do make sure someone outside knows where you are.
4. Do take several light sources, caving gear, and emergency supplies.
5. Don't take anything out of a cave or leave anything behind.
6. Do respect and protect cave formations and wildlife.
7. Do learn caving rules, responsibilities, and procedures.
8. Do get involved in preserving Kentucky's precious underground natural resources.
9. Do visit Kentucky cave country and tour a "show" cave to experience the wonders beneath our feet.
Save Kentucky Caves
Major development projects in cave country potentially endanger "wild caves" or "virgin caves," often unmapped or not fully explored. Dedicated cavers, intent on protecting irreplaceable cave resources, have united to save this precious Kentucky subterranean landscape.
Historically, cave visitors have unwittingly destroyed fragile underground ecology by carting off "souvenirs" or leaving behind trash or graffiti. But today, concerned Kentuckians realize the delicate balance and beauty of cave formations and wildlife that cannot be restored.
To learn more, contact:
American Cave Conservation Association
American Cave Museum
P.O. Box 409
119 E. Main Street
Horse Cave, KY 42749
National Speleological Society
2813 Cave Avenue
Huntsville, AL 35810-4413
Blue Grass Grotto