Riverbluff Cave, Greene County, Missouri
While most people were watching replays of a plane colliding into one of the World Trade Center Towers, road construction crews were colliding into something of their own on that fateful September day.
Riverbluff Cave was discovered accidentally on September 11, 2001, while the county was blasting for a new road on the outskirts of Springfield, MO. In order to protect the pristine, untouched condition of the cave, the county covered the entrance and created an air-tight locked door and passageway system to guard against intruders. The system was completed in April of 2002, and the cave went public later that month.
The down and dirty of it
Riverbluff Cave is approximately 2000 feet long from main entrance to back room. The heavily decorated main room occupies the first 200 feet of this. Width varies, and there are two side passages that poke out into the nether regions of the cave (one which contains snake remains, and one which is home to the largest congregation of peccary tracks in the world).
Inside the Cave
Inside Riverbluff Cave is a plethora of findings which have been dated at approximately Pleistocene in age, the time period that spanned from 1.8 million to 11,000 years ago. Items include snake skeletons, fossilized turtle shells, numerous small rodent tracks and skeletons, peccary (a type of Ice Age pig) tracks, and numerous bear and large cat claw marks, which show that this cave was used heavily for shelter before it closed so many years ago, waiting to be opened and rediscovered by humans. The original opening is believed to be closer to the now "back" of the cave, but was covered over by mud and dirt thousands of years ago.
Also, please keep in mind that all of the extensive tracks, fossils, and dung have been found sitting in the very top layer of mud currently inside the cave. Little to no digging has been done; therefore, it can easily be assumed that many, many more remains lie still buried in the mud. New discoveries are made on each trip, but lead paleontologist Matt Forir says he has no interest in rushing the excavation. This cave is to be preserved for many future generations of research-- for days, as Forir puts it, when tools for research are more advanced and high-tech. He stated that he hopes when he passes the gauntlet on to the next researcher, 99.9% of the clay is still in the cave, untouched.
Matt shines a light on some bear claw marks up on a ledge near an area of bear beds.
Inside the cave 2
Forir believes some of the most impressive evidence left behind is from the extinct short-faced bears that once inhabited the cave. These bears could stand as much as fifteen feet tall, and left their mark all over Riverbluff, in bear beds and claw marks.
In addition to animal findings, Riverbluff is peppered with speleothems--stalactites, stalagmites, and columns which adorn the main room. Cave bacon, draperies, and flowstone decorate the walls, and ceilings full of soda straws can be seen in many places throughout the cave. The difference between this cave, however, and many speleothems in commercial caves is that everything in this cave has gone untouched for at least 55 thousand years.
Inside the cave 4
Although Riverbluff will most likely never become a commercial cave like many others in the region, the possibilities and educational opportunities available to students and scientists alike makes the intellectual revenue available from this cave far more valuable than any monetary number.
Why is this Cave So Important?
Riverbluff is home to many firsts for the science community. First are the peccary tracks. Before, it was believed that peccary were typically only dragged into caves as food. The massive quantity of tracks found in the west passageway proves that theory wrong--it shows that herds of the wild pig-like creatures likely used the cave for shelter.
Second are the turtle shells. Studying the size, pattern and age of the shell, researchers have discovered that these shells likely belong to a never-before found species of turtle, though at least one of the shells is believed to have been an ancient ancestor to the Missouri box turtle.
Third, a truly amazing find has been the animal dung found inside the cave. Preserved dung is extremely rare, and by studying this fecal matter, we are able to discover what the diets of these animals were like.
So, as you can see, Riverbluff is extremely important. But why are we able to find all these clues about our past? Because of the lack of two things within the cave: air and people. Air dries out a cave and essentially kills it--the passageway to Riverbluff is completely air-tight. And there is no evidence that before the blasting crew opened it, there was ever a human inside the cave. Humans are the #1 contaminant inside a cave--even the lint on your clothes can have a lasting effect on a cave. Untrained feet can crush bones, oil from your skin can stop a speleothem from growing where you touched it...which is why speleologists must be trained for this type of research so as to leave as little impact as possible.
The Caver's Creed: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time."