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Partnership Discovers Caves on Natural Areas, Creates Maps

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, December 18, 2020

ANHC staff members Emily Roberts and Ryan Leeson-Spotts have been partnering with Dr. Kayla Sapkota, vice president of the Cave Research Foundation (CRF), and other CRF volunteers to discover, inventory, and map caves at ANHC’s natural areas.

Before searching for new caves, Dr. Sapkota and other CRF volunteers consult Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), a remote-sensing technique that uses laser light to record the surface of the Earth, to detect potential cave features. ANHC staff also consult old maps and records for any notations as well as records from other agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

Once certain features or areas are deemed likely to contain caves, ANHC staff members and CRF volunteers gather for a day of “ridgewalking;” manually searching for caves. Once a cave is found, the group records measurements, performs a biological survey, and creates a map. Sometimes the life found within a cave is limited to insects such as cave crickets and fishing spiders, whereas other caves are home to larger organisms: pickerel frogs (Lithobates palustris), cave salamanders, bats, etc. Several endangered species that can be found in Arkansas caves include: Ozark big-eared bats (Corynorhinus townsendii ingens), gray bats (Myotis grisescens), northern long-eared bats (Myotis septentrionalis), Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis), Benton cave crayfish (Cambarus aculabrum), Hell Creek crayfish (Cambarus zophonastes), and Ozark cavefish (Amblyopsis rosae).

During the spring and fall of 2020, the CRF has helped ANHC map and inventory 10 known caves and discover 13 previously undocumented caves at three natural areas. The caves found range from small tunnel-like “cavelets” that only go about 15 feet underground and take less than an hour to map, to larger formations that contain several pits and rooms that may take several days to map. CRF volunteers taught ANHC staff how to use rappelling gear, which was necessary in the larger caves.

Upon exiting any size or type of cave, all clothing and gear brought into the cave must be decontaminated to prevent the spread of diseases and organisms (such as the fungus which causes White-nose syndrome and is detrimental to many bat species) from cave to cave. The potential to spread disease, for vandalism, and for the disturbance of endangered species has led ANHC to construct gates in front of or around caves found on natural areas.

Biological inventory data and cave maps will help inform future ANHC land management and acquisition. ANHC staff members could not be more grateful to Dr. Sapkota and other CRF volunteers for the hours they spend on these projects.


Top left — A cave salamander spotted while surveying inside an ANHC cave. Photo by Emily Roberts.

At right — Ryan Leeson-Spotts rappelling during a cave survey with the Cave Research Foundation (CRF). CRF volunteers taught ANHC staff how to use rappelling gear, which was necessary in the larger caves on natural areas. Photo by Emily Roberts.

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