Ozark Cavefish

Photo by Bob Taylor

The more rare cavefish is the Ozark cavefish, Amblyopsis rosae. This fish lives in the limestone aquifer under the Springfield plateau, with its range extending into Arkansas and Oklahoma. This fish is classed as federally threatened, an official status giving it legal protection. A reasonable estimate is that fewer than a couple thousand of these fish have ever been seen by humans in the 120 years since their discovery. The few sites where they exist do not harbor large populations. Ozark cavefish are considered to be the second most cave adapted fish species in the nation, top honors going to the extremely rare and strangely shaped Alabama cavefish.

Ozark Cavefish have a slightly flattened head, are translucent to pinkish white, and the internal organs can often be seen. An average adult grows to 1.75 inches. They are believed to spawn in the spring, and be mouth incubators, but the only thing rarer to see than adult cavefish are baby cavefish, as they are nearly transparent. Ozark cavefish are thought to be naturally long lived, 10 to 15 years, but they also have a high mortality rate. Cavefish sense their food by vibration, using lateral lines, and special papillae around the head. They will eat nearly any animal matter they can find, including, occasionally their own young. Though they cannot see, some specimens have shown a sensitivity to light. Just what mechanism comes into play here, is yet unknown.

Sightings of Ozark cavefish have been declining for many years, and sites which once reliably contained cavefish have declined, or show no cavefish. Increasing urbanization in the Ozarks, and declining water quality are thought to be the culprits. Since many communities on the Springfield plateau get their water supply from groundwater, the decrease in cavefish may have implications for the human populations there. Recent efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies in the Tri-State area, and others have resulted in the Ozark cavefish gaining a much higher profile in the public eye than ever before. When the USF&W National Fish Hatchery at Neosho, a site doing research on Ozark cavefish with an eye to save it, did some renovation to their groundwater supply, they discovered cavefish in the water. A cavefish viewing station is now in their visitor's center.

Some Ozark cavefish sites have been protected because the Ozark cavefish is often found in gray bat caves. Presumably, the amounts of guano generated by these colonial bats provided an important food source, either directly or indirectly, for the Ozark cavefish. As gray bats declined, so did the cavefish. In the last few years, Gray bat populations are rebounding, but any effect on cavefish populations is still unknown.

For more information on Ozark Cavefish, or to report a sighting contact the Missouri Department of Conservation, Endangered Species Biologist, P. O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102. DO NOT DISTURB OR ATTEMPT TO TAKE THE FISH. To do so is against the law.

2003 Jo Schaper.

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