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?

"I have to live down here with these people," says Aley. "I'd just as soon have it that the government did this, but I think it's a good thing."

When his neighbors knit their brows, he reminds them that invoking the Endangered Species Act works to his benefit.

"It lets me control the bureaucrats," he says. "If the feds want to put a highway on my land, they need permission. Sure, there are prohibitions: The cavesnail's protected from collection, harm or harassment, which means now no one can pursue or capture it. Legally, that means I should not even turn rocks to look for it. Now, I'm not going to get into whether or not I do that. But we should not allow these things to just disappear from the face of the earth. When an aquatic animal is listed as endangered, you have to be concerned with the entire area that affects the water."

Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Aley and his wife, Cathy, deep in the underground home of the cavesnail
Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Aley and his wife, Cathy, deep in the underground home of the cavesnail

In other words, his manic cleanup project is looking saner by the minute.

Emergency protection runs out Aug. 26.

By that time, U.S. Fish & Wildlife will have posted the cavesnail's relevant data in the Federal Register, allowed public comment on the species' status and decided whether these little guys rate a permanent listing as endangered.

Meanwhile, since the discovery of the cavesnail, the Aleys have found five more organisms -- a rolypolylike millipede, a terrestrial isopod, an amphipod, a dipluran, a phalangodid harvestman and a cave spider -- that exist in Tumbling Rock Cave but have never been described in the scientific literature.

The cavesnail's new prestige will protect their ecosystem, too.

And that, in the end, is the point: The balance of the entire ecosystem, the cave world as a whole. The Aleys just can't put it that way, because the law, the funding mechanisms and the clueless public all require a single, discrete, tightly labeled object.

Enter the cavesnail, a 2-millimeter microcosm of the whole.

Judging from the most recent count, there are perhaps 150 cavesnails left, just 1 percent of the population estimated in 1970.

There could be more, of course; there could be a vast subterranean cavesnail empire hidden in the farthest crannies of the cave.

But there probably isn't.

As soon as the emergency protection came down, the Aleys talked to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service about a research grant. The government officials listened, nodded and smiled. It's not every day they have a world-famous hydrogeologist and a biologist on site, concerned, willing to work and already invested -- $1.4 million invested -- in the outcome.

The Aleys raced back to the cave and built an instrumentation platform at the weir, a small dammed channel where they were already monitoring stream flow. With federal money and sophisticated probes, they will be able to record, every 10 seconds, the water temperature, the levels of dissolved oxygen and dissolved rock, turbidity and flow rate.

"It's all related to trying to recover the snail," says Aley, who no longer apologizes for sounding ludicrous.

Aboveground, he intends next to inject tracer dyes into the drainage ditches and follow the sediment's path to the cavesnails. He's eager for the data, which will yield clues to the entire ecosystem. But what matters most of all, he says straight-faced, is doing what's best for the cavesnail.

Only one other possibility still haunts him.

The guano.

High in the upper passageway, where stalagmites stick up like 1,000 hopeful penises, there's a cave room filled with a vast pile of the stuff, the botanical record of thousands of years of pollens locked into its gray-brown goo -- because every summer, about 150,000 gray bats, another federally listed endangered species, invade the cave like retirees making the winter pilgrimage to Fort Lauderdale.

Unlike the solitary Eastern pipistrelle, the grays are colonial bats, hanging 160 to a square foot. At twilight, they fly out of the mouth of the cave in great dark swoops, thousands at a time. They hunt and eat about 1,000 pounds of insects every night, and, once back in the cave, they drop enough guano to cater 95 percent of the smaller creatures' meals.

The guano breaks down, over time, into a full menu of microorganisms. And it's the cave's oxygen supply that fuels that process.

What if it's depleted oxygen that's killing off the cavesnails? What if one endangered species is endangering the other?

The bats hang silent, taunting Aley even after they're dead. Their claws curve into the rough stone of the cave's ceilings, and they stay clenched in that position. Humans need a burst of muscle energy to make a fist, but bats, their brains wired the opposite way, need a burst of energy to relax one.

So will Aley, if he's forced to make some sort of "Sophie's choice" that risks one endangered species to save the other.

He tries not to think about that scenario; instead, he looks past it to the future, searching for ways to protect the cave's ecosystem long after he's worm food. Twangy, touristy Branson lies just 25 miles to the northwest, and its count of annual visitors is expected to increase from 6 million in 1992 to 11 million by 2015.

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