Researchers say Missouri cave is window on ice age

Saturday, September 6, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Matt Forir expected to find another 50-foot, trash-filled pit when he went to investigate a cave unearthed by construction workers in Greene County.

Forir, a paleontologist, could not have been more wrong.

The dynamite that blasted into limestone for a new road has unveiled proof that 1,400-pound short-faced bears roamed southwest Missouri during the ice age, and that they struggled with arthritis and gout.

Researchers also are investigating the possibility that herds of peccary -- piglike animals -- sought shelter in caves thousands of years ago, as opposed to only being dragged in by predators.

And the icicle-shaped stalactites, flowstone and soda straws created from countless drops of mineral-laden water might prove useful for scientists.

"Every where you look in here, you find something significant," said Forir, who is president of Missouri Speleological Survey.

Researchers think they might find enough evidence of ice age animals inside what is formally known as Riverbluff Cave to give it national prominence.

"People that have something in their back yard tend to get very excited about it and very proud, which is only right. But in this case it seems to be very justified," said Greg McDonald, paleontological project coordinator for National Park Service in Denver.

McDonald, also a peccary expert, has been working with Forir to examine animal tracks and dung found in the cave.

"It certainly indicates that maybe they were using these caves in a social sense, where herds of them were going in to get out of bad weather," McDonald said.

Initial research shows most of the large formations likely formed during the Pleistocene Era, the period from about 1.8 million to about 13,000 years ago. It had remained closed until Sept. 11, 2001, when construction workers were making room for a new road.

Forir said he was watching developments of the World Trade Center terrorism on TV when Greene County Presiding Commissioner Dave Coonrod called for help.

Missouri has more than 5,500 registered caves, most of them insignificant. Forir wasn't expecting much when he arrived at the site.

Initial explorations revealed bear claw marks too big for any modern-day animal. Equally puzzling were the peccary tracks and turtle shells deep inside the cave.

"We call it our own Ice Age time capsule," Coonrod said.

The county decided to seal the cave for six months so the road could be completed and researchers could develop a plan for exploring it.

Meanwhile, he and his two research assistants have been slowly working to map and study the cave centimeter-by-centimeter because of its sensitive nature.

"This project will outlive me," the 29-year-old Forir said.

So far, they have uncovered claw marks believed to be the front paw of a now-extinct short-faced bear. The marks are about two feet long and seven inches wide. The largest black bear ever found in Missouri had a forepaw measure five inches across, Forir said.

"The short-faced bear is the T. rex of the Ice Age," he said.

There also is a trio of extinct tortoises embedded in a wall. One fossil was believed to be about a foot long, more than twice the length of a modern-day box turtle shell.

"The easy part is identifying what it is," Forir said. "The hard part is determining what it's doing here. Most of these animals don't belong in a cave, and yet they're here."

Among the curiosities is the discovery of several peccary bones in a passageway.

"It's the only cave in the world with actual documented peccary tracks," Forir said.

The team also hopes to eventually determine a timeline for the cave, but so far it has been difficult because of recrystalization. Researcher David Gaunt compared it to a clock losing power during an outage. When power is restored, time resumes from the point the clock stopped ticking. It doesn't automatically indicate how long the power was off.

"It makes dating useless because we can only go back to the point that recrystalization occurred," Gaunt said.

The county has spent about $50,000 in connection with the cave, including moving the planned road several feet to protect Riverbluff's pristine features. In tight budget times, Coonrod has had to fight hard to fund the project.

"In my mind it's a way we can learn from history," Coonrod said. "We should be able to see what mistakes were made, and how we can improve."

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