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Old 06-09-2011, 03:06 PM
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Smile Fisher Cave

KJ's mom was in town two weekends back. On Saturday we went with her to Fisher Cave, down in Meramec State Park. Now, you may be aware of a place called Meramec Caverns. This is indeed part of the same region, except that the Caverns are owned privately and run for profit. If you are ever in the area with some hours to kill and you have any interest in caves, either of these places is worth your time. Which one you want to visit depends on what kind of experience you prefer to have. If you prefer to go to a well-lit, easy-to-navigate place and see some beautiful and unusual formations while the guide talks about robbers and wacky game show hosts and the odd cave fact, and then buy something shiny from a gift shop, Meramec Caverns is your best bet. If you would rather walk and crouch around with flashlights and see some beautiful formations while the guide talks about bats and bears and the odd human fact for 90 minutes, Fisher Cave is your best bet.

Meramec Caverns is also slliiiiiightly easier to find. Just get on the highway within fifty miles of the place and you'll have a billboard or barn roof every ten feet letting you know whether you're on the right track.

So, anyway, we went to Fisher Cave. I am not kidding about the crouching, as you can tell by this sign posted outside its entrance:

50 inches for 100 feet. That's once each way.

We didn't worry about taking pictures this time; we just enjoyed the experience without worrying much about posterity. Unfortunately, I can't find any pictures from our last visit, so I don't have anything directly to show you for the inside of the cave.

I have, however, found a subseries of videos on YouTube that give you an idea of what it's like inside Fisher Cave. (Well, yeah, it's cavey. More particular than that, I mean.) The Fisher Cave part starts at about 2:50 of this clip (apparently coming at the end of a trip to Meramec Caverns, incidentally) and effectively ends with #15 in the series. As you can imagine, the cave visuals aren't exactly of consistently high quality; they don't really start until about 4:15 of the above clip. I haven't watched it all, but I can tell you that there are some good visuals in #14 (including a salamander in the first few minutes) and #15 (especially see from about the 6:50 mark to 9:40). Both times we've visited, the talk has been considerably different from this tour, which was apparently from the 1990s. I can also tell you that both times we've visited, the tour has lasted much longer than ~30 minutes -- 90 minutes, in fact -- so maybe the tour has been expanded since the above video was shot. Or maybe the recorder was shut off for the tricky bits.

Just past the entrance is the first part, a path that runs through a tunnel, along and over a small stream. Last time we were here, I saw a small frog in the stream. Well, I call it a stream, but it's probably more of a rivulet. Even that would be overstating its size, possibly. Anyway, this time we saw a few cave salamanders and some cave shrimp (which were really just large specks floating in the water). I have no idea if the frog was in fact a "cave frog", or whether it ate "cave flies".

The cave has several types of rock in it, including a type of clay, dolemite (a type of limestone), and chert. Over the millennia, the water has worn away the limestone but not the chert. The result of this is that the parts of the ceiling that are not covered in stalactites are often covered with patches of chert. There are a few columns (which occur when a stalagmite and stalactite love each other very much) that look as if they've been bisected horizontally by an exceptionally sharp blade. The small gap between top and bottom is due to the clay underneath the column having dried out. Dried clay shrinks, so the floor and ceiling basically pulled the column apart. There's an example at 5:51 of #14 of the video series linked above.

There's one particular formation that I want to try to describe. The best I can come up with is: imagine whitewater rapids with the water mostly drained and the rapids consisting of a series of wading pools. When we were there, the pools were full of water due to all the recent rains. You can see it at 9:50 of #12 (the one linked above) and at 0:36 of #13. It doesn't look very impressive to me in either recording. I guess you have to be there; it's quite pretty for being a bunch of pits in rock. Being full of water probably adds to the charm.

The cave is still changing. There are still many columns and other structures that are shiny white, which means that they are still actively forming. This is of course a beautiful and unexpected sight in a cave. "Dead" structures rust, possibly turning green or brown depending on their mineral content (such as iron or copper).

The ecosystem of the cave is roughly as follows. Bats fly out, eat insects (the bats we saw were pure insectivores), come back in, and poop. Creepy crawlies eat the poop. Salamanders stand by and eat any creepy crawlies that step outside the poop to catch their breath. Any salamander that wanders into the poop is at risk of getting eaten by the creepy crawlies. I would guess the frog follows the salamanders' example. I don't know what the shrimp do. Maybe they order pizza.

There used to be tens of thousands (an estimate, I'm sure, but evidence supports it) of several species of bats living in this cave. Now, it's home to a few dozen individuals. We saw two little Eastern Sillynames (Wikipedia suggests Pipistrelle and the Youtube videos confirm) on our latest tour.

There are several reasons for the drastic drop in numbers, and I'm sure you can guess one of them. There is a large room at the end of the walkable path through the cave which contains a large-ish, reasonably flat floor area. Around the year 1900, people were in the habit of heading all the way back into that cavern to dance. The trouble of making one's way over all the tricky footing, dressed in one's dancing finest, was obviously outweighed by the allure of getting to use a cave as one's ballroom . . . although, given that the floor there isn't all that big and that it also borders on a wide, deep ravine (which contains claw marks from bears that fell in -- see 5:35 of #15 for an example or two), I doubt they went in for ballroom dancing. Maybe one of those stand-in-place dances.

Well, people weren't as ecologically minded back then as they can be nowadays, and some novel titled Dracula had recently been published, so . . . bats in the hallway leading to one's ballroom weren't appreciated. People would head through the cave, clubbing the sleeping bats as they went. The ceiling is low enough for an awful lot of bats to have been within easy reach. Being in a cave, people needed to carry torches, and sometimes they would let the torch do the talking in place of a club.

Incidentally, people would also take pieces of stalactite or stalagmite with them as souvenirs. Some parts of the cave have a damaged look to them as a result. (See at 4:30 in #14 in the video series.) However, never fear, the cave will heal itself eventually. Stalactites grow at the rate of something on the order of one cubic inch every hundred years, or something like that. (The guide in the video gives one cubic inch every three hundred years as an average.) Meanwhile, cave rangers (or whatever they're called) have been finding a few discarded stala-whatsits here and there and fastening them back into place. True story.

There is also the whitenose problem, which is apparently decimating bats throughout the United States. The typical U.S. bat survives winter by the tried-and-true model of getting really fat beforehand and then hibernating in low-energy mode. This fungus comes along and decides that it wants to set up a home on a bat's nose. Seems pretty silly to me, but anyway, having fungus growing on one's nose is apparently as annoying to a bat as it would be to a human. So the bat keeps waking up out of hibernation to tell the fungus off. This can deplete its stored energy to the point that it dies. Or else it leaves the cave to find food, fails to find it, and then dies. Apparently, bats and the fungus co-exist in Europe, but here in America the mortality rate is 90%. Several of the caves near Fisher Cave are closed off in an attempt to slow the spread of the fungus, and those visiting Fisher Cave are asked to not wear any clothing they've worn while visiting other caves.

This wouldn't be so bad if bats reproduced as quickly as certain other small mammals. But apparently a bat only has one offspring per year. These days, that's treading water at best.

The physical evidence for a huge bat population in the past lies in a very tall part of the cave. There is a humongostrous mountain of guano here, hard and un-stinky enough to be indistinguishable from the actual rock unless you're expecting it.

The tour guide in the video finds a bat and talks about the species living in the cave at 8:33 of #14.

After we left the cave, we went on a short trail that looped around on the hill that Fisher Cave is located in. It was sunny and there were interesting things to see, so we did take pictures on that walk. I'll post them later for those interested.
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