Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park

Flora & Fauna

Mammoth Cave is home to a wide variety of plant and animal life ranging from rare exotic cave species to more common woodland creatures found in eastern deciduous forest environments. Scientists have discovered more than 130 species in the cave itself, in addition to almost 1,000 species of flowering plants on the surface, hundreds of animal species, more than 80 types of fish, and over 50 kinds of freshwater mussels. Mammoth Cave is home to over 70 endangered, threatened or state-listed species.

Animals

The Surface

The surface contains animals typical of an eastern hardwood forest. Larger mammals include white-tailed deer, fox, raccoon, opossum, woodchuck, beaver, rabbit and squirrel. Smaller mammals, such as bats, mice and chipmunks, also abound. Many reptiles and amphibians find protection in the park, too. Copperheads and rattlesnakes are also common. Birds such as mourning doves, whippoorwills, owls, hawks, woodpeckers and warblers fly through Mammoth Cave's forests. Wild turkeys, reintroduced in 1983, are now regularly seen by visitors.

The Rivers

The Green River, which meanders through the park, supports an unusual diversity of fish and three species of cavefish. The river supports a wide variety of mollusks, such as freshwater mussels, that survive in the sand and gravel. Over 50 species of mussels, including seven on the endangered species list, live in the park. Aquatic animals in the river play an important role in providing nourishment for other animals—in the cave, in the river and on land.

The Caves

More than 130 species are regular inhabitants within the Mammoth Cave system. These species are divided almost equally among three classes of obligate cave dwellers (troglobites), facultative species which can complete their life cycle in or out of caves (troglophiles), and those that use caves for refuge (trogloxenes). Because of the region's unique history, the tremendous variety of abiotic conditions, and the presence of key trogloxene species, the south-central Kentucky karst has cave species and biotic cave communities that are among the most diverse in the world.

Although Mammoth Cave is not currently used by large numbers of bats, 12 species, including two that are endangered, do live in the cave. By consuming huge numbers of insects, bats work as a "natural insecticide," controlling crop pests and insects that may spread disease. Little brown bats, one of the more common species in Mammoth Cave, can eat about 600 mosquitoes in an hour. In addition, many cultivated plants that we enjoy—including avocados, dates, peaches, bananas and cashews—depend on bats for pollination.

When you visit Mammoth Cave, you're far more likely to see crickets than bats. Crickets, actually a kind of grasshopper, are trogloxenes too. They spend much of their life in the cave but depend on night-time forays on the surface to gather food. Because Mammoth Cave has a declining bat population, crickets are extremely important in delivering energy, in the form of droppings, eggs and carcasses, to other animals in the cave.

Troglobites, the group of cave animals most highly adapted to cave life, cannot survive outside caves. Many, including eyeless fish and crayfish, illustrate creative adaptations to their environment. With no need for camouflage or protection from the sun, many of these animals have lost pigmentation and are white. Some have no eyes. Most have developed other highly sensitive sensory organs to detect predators and prey. Because food in caves is scarce, full-time cave dwellers tend to be smaller, with lower metabolism and longer life spans than their surface counterparts.

Plants

Park vegetation features mostly second growth forests of various vintages, and small areas of old growth. Approximately 45 percent of the park land was used for agricultural purposes prior to park establishment. These areas are largely dominated by eastern red cedar and Virginia pine mixed with deciduous trees along the outer margins. More mature upland sites are generally oak hickory forest, and in moist hollows, beech-maple-tulip poplar forest dominates. Along the Green and Nolin Rivers, sycamore, silver poplar, river maple and box elder are found. Special communities of limited distribution include upland swamps with pin oak, sweetgum and red maple; deep sandstone hollows with hemlock and umbrella magnolia; dry limestone cedar oak glades; and cliff margin stands of Virginia pine on sandstone cliff margins.

Kentucky once had a vast area of savannah grassland known as the "Barrens." This was, in part, a human-engineered ecosystem maintained through intentional burning by American Indians before European contact in an effort to attract deer and buffalo. Although largely eliminated from the region because of agricultural practice and fire suppression, small remnant stands of native grasses still exist and consist of varieties of Indian Grass, Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem and others genetically distinct from their cousins in the Great Plains.