The Clan of the Cavesnail

Tom Aley spent a fortune and more than 30 years of his life defending a creature no bigger than a grain of sand. Beautiful madness or crazy vision?

They married in 1975.

By then, Tom Aley already knew about the cave's special dweller.

The real-estate agent who'd sold him the place, Deb Walley, had come often to help drill the shaft and explore the cave's nether regions. A balding, pleasant-faced fellow whose rural high-school education hadn't come anywhere near satisfying his immense curiosity, Walley observed the natural world like a hawk and remembered every detail.

Anybody home? Cavesnails may or may not be in this photo.
Jennifer Silverberg
Anybody home? Cavesnails may or may not be in this photo.
Aley strolls along the deeply scarred land that surrounds his cave. Silt from eroded pastures threaten the life of the Tumbling Creek cavesnail.
Jennifer Silverberg
Aley strolls along the deeply scarred land that surrounds his cave. Silt from eroded pastures threaten the life of the Tumbling Creek cavesnail.

One day in 1969, wading in the cave stream, he turned over a rock and for the first time saw -- white specks.

Magnified 100 times, these specks revealed themselves to be cavesnails, their bodies a soft honeysuckle yellow, their whorled white shells translucent. They were devoid even of a rudimentary eye, Aley realized, so their ancestors must have dwelt in caves for centuries:

"At one time they would have descended from an eyed animal -- except in Kansas, where there is no evolution."

Intrigued by Walley's find, Aley paged through scientific journals, hunting for any reference to a similar cavesnail.

Nothing.

He recruited the expertise of aquatic biologists, but they'd never seen anything like it. In 1971, he got the snail's particulars published in the biology journal Nautilus, and he was sure: No one in the scientific community had ever come across Antrobia culveri. As far as they could tell, the cavesnail lived nowhere else in the entire world.

It was the only species in its genus. And its only habitat was Tom Aley's cave.


Aley swings the door open, and sunbeams cut into the shaft, lighting walls the warm tan of Jerusalem. Squinting through patches of light and dark, he climbs down steep narrow steps dripping with condensed moisture. In the twilit zone at the base of the stairs, he checks the battery pack strapped around his waist, then steps onto the trail.

It's a path he's followed for 35 years.

He knows what people think of his obsession; he hasn't sunk so far into science's oblivion that he's lost sentience. But he's not a man who troubles himself about gossip, or even common sense.

Day after day, he descends into the cave.

Blackness slips over him like an executioner's hood.

As he walks forward, he swings his flashlight beam in an arc. Dozens of mouse-tiny, velvety beige bats hang upside down within the folds of the cave's crystallized draperies, watching him approach.

Contrary to lore, bats aren't blind at all, but almost everything else in here is. The cave webworm, larva of a fungus gnat, spins shimmery homes it never sees. The grotto salamander starts life with eyes, but then the lids fuse and the back of the eyeball disintegrates.

Troglobites -- cave creatures that have lived without sunshine for thousands of years -- don't need eyes. They hear and feel their way through this monochrome world, their skin drained of pigment, their survival hinging on darkness.

And on Aley's vision.

That vision is partly self-centered: Cast in melodrama, he is these creatures' savior, the godlike being who, from above, orchestrates and perpetuates their survival. But years of sacrificed time and money and passion have worn away much of the ego, and what shines through the bare spots is a genuine affection for the cave's grotesques.

He would never put it that way, of course. A scientist, leery of melodrama and sensationalism, Aley talks in calm, rational sentences about damaged habitats and ecosystems. He presents himself as the visible spokesman for an invisible world.

But he's walking a thin line between the noble and the absurd.

On either side of the trail, his beam picks out floss-thin white millipedes clinging to the cave wall, gray spiders, a tiny bat skull as delicate as spun sugar. He shines the flashlight up inside a hollow column formed by the meeting of a stalagmite and a stalactite; shows where an ancient bear slid along a high ledge, leaving a coarse black hair to fossilize in the crystal; and spotlights, with a flourish, the place he found the bones of the Pleistocene jaguar.

Stories cling to every ledge and cranny of this cave -- yet he keeps moving.

He is looking, always, for the unseen. For something whose genetic code is unique and irreplaceable. Something whose tiny existence holds clues to huge, menacing environmental problems. Something whose life is so damned insignificant, nobody else would think twice about it.

The trail twists, leading under an overhang that turns towering, barrel-chested Aley into Quasimodo. Luckily, the cave rock he's banged his head into so many times is not the cold sleek granite of bank lobbies but a blend of dolomite and chert as soft and porous as old florist's foam. Water trickles through the walls, tumbles down waterfalls, drips from stalactites hanging like dipped tallow, slides around knobby crystals of cave coral.

The temperature down here stays about 60 degrees Fahrenheit all year, free from the caprices of ice storms and heat waves. The air stands motionless, heavy with moisture and a calm, ancient sameness.

After a few claustrophobic yards, the trail opens into a gothic cathedral, its crystal ceiling 60 feet high -- and 170 feet below the earth's surface. The sound of burbling water grows louder as Aley walks toward the cave stream.

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