(Missouri Department of Conservation photo)
Fisheries Biologist Brad Pobst led the adventure with the help of Education Specialist Sara Turner and Nature Center Volunteer Ken Jones. The teens walked through a bean field and descended into the Thomas Moore cave around 9:15 am, according to Turner.
"We had shared our previous experiences with them on the way to Perryville to get them excited and prepared, but no one really knows what it's like until they try it," Turner said.
At a constant temperature of 58 degrees, the group crawled up and over rocks, under stalactites, and over puddles, trying to avoid hitting their heads in the process. Turner said the group was thankful for the helmets they wore.
Pobst showed participants various cave formations and explained the importance of not touching them so that they can continue to grow and develop, Turner said.
"We try to make local citizens aware of the effects of pollution in regards to sinkholes, caves, and groundwater," she said.
Turner said the teens were able to observe cave salamanders in larval and adult forms, camel crickets, an Eastern Pipistrelle bat, a tiny bluegill, planaria, amphipods, and isopods -- all in the first forty-five minutes.
She said as the group continued into the cave system the spaces were tighter, the mud became more slippery, the water got deeper, and the teens became louder.
"After all, water up to your ankles is cold, but when it gets up to your hips, its down right chilly," Turner said.
The water provided the opportunity to see and catch a unique fish found only in Perry County, Missouri, and nowhere else in world -- the Grotto Sculpin. The teens were able to capture a few of these tiny, rare creatures, so Pobst could do some genetic testing on them back in the lab.
According to A Guide to Missouri's Cave Life, a free MDC publication by the state cave biologist, William R. Elliott.to Turner, the fish "evolved from the banded sculpin and has varying reductions in eye size, pigmentation, and pelvic fin ray numbers."
Even though the cave's tunnels continued, Turner said the group had to head back to the light of the above-ground world eventually. She said as they traversed the obstacles in reverse, the teens worked together as a team to help each other up and down.
"Everyone was tired, wet, and muddy, but they were all smiles," she said.
Turner said one of the teens described the day as the best experience of her life.
"Maybe she'll become a cave biologist herself someday," Turner said.
Attendees included "Racers" Elizabeth and Marie Ansberry of Cape Girardeau, Sarah Arnold of Bertrand,
Travis Bennett and Conagher Marler of Marble Hill, Camden and Carlee Criddle of Cape Girardeau, Andie Fox of Jackson, Alicea and Jayna Little of Wappapello, and Angela Lix of Benton.
For more information on "Racers" or other Missouri Department of Conservation Programs, contact the Cape Girardeau Nature Center at (573) 290-5218 or go online to www.mdc.mo.gov.