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Courtesy of Riverbluff Cave
Riverbluff CaveIn the cave's front room, many formations are still growing, including columns, stalagmites, and soda straws.
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Courtesy of Riverbluff Cave
Riverbluff Cave cat marksThis claw mark of a saber-tooth cat or an American lion was found on the walls along with marks from the claws of a short-faced bear.
Riverbluff Cave near Springfield Provides Timeline in Fossils
Everyone will remember the day Riverbluff Cave near Springfield was discovered—it was discovered on September 11, 2001. One of the little-known consequences of the day’s tragedy is that an instant ban on any dynamite explosions was immediately sent around the country to the construction industry. A road crew in Springfield received the alert and immediately delayed planting any more charges. That morning, they had begun planting a planned dozen dynamite charges in a rock outcrop where they were lengthening a rural road.
But they had a problem. They had already planted two charges. Leaving them in the ground would be dangerous, but they could not be safely retrieved, either. So the road crew sought a special exception to explode the two charges already planted.
If all twelve charges had been exploded, the cave would have been lost. As it was, the two charges blew a hole 40 feet wide and 20 feet high but did not destroy the cave. Two hundred feet from the entrance, claw marks from the extinct giant short-faced bear were discovered, prompting officials to save the cave. Following the cave’s discovery, workers had just five days to seal the entrance before the outside environment would have begun altering the humidity level of the cave.
The 2,000-foot-long Riverbluff Cave has been sealed for at least 55,000 years, giving researchers an opportunity to study this prehistoric cave. Some of the discoveries include:
- turtle shells of extinct species
- a 660,000-year-old wooly or meridian or new species of mammoth
- a juvenile mammoth
- a giant 3-foot-long armadillo
- a 350-pound ice-age pig
- a 700-pound American lion
- 2-foot-long claw marks from a short-faced bear (the largest bear that ever lived, standing six feet tall on all fours, and stretching 10 feet in length)
- 25 beds where the bears hibernated
No human habitation of the cave has been found. The cave was sealed at least 55,000 years ago, maybe longer, and there is no evidence of humans in the area until 15,000 years ago.
The cave has gained national notoriety because it could potentially change what is known about the migration of the mammoth in North America. A set of mammoth bones discovered in the cave could rewrite previous theories about two mammoth species that once roamed the Midwest. Researchers have dated the sediment in which the bones were found as being about 660,000 years old. This date falls in the interval between the last known wooly mammoth and the first appearance of its successor, the Meridian mammoth. That means these bones either belong to the oldest wooly mammoth or the youngest Meridian mammoth. Or, it could be yet an entirely new species of mammoth.The scientists need to find more bones before they can make a definitive identification.
Another discovery is the only known hoof prints of pecarries in the world. The extinct peccary, an ice-age pig, used caves for shelter. Previously, scientists thought peccary bones found in caves had been drug in by predators.
The researchers go in only about once a month to limit human impact on the cave and conduct only about three or four major digs in a year. To get into the cave, they climb down a 16-foot ladder in a manhole, then crawl through a 30-foot-long culvert to get into the main portion.
Even years after the cave’s initial discovery, fossils are still rolling in by the hundreds. Specimens from the cave are housed at a new museum near the cave, which will also house the Missouri Institute of Natural Science, the only natural history museum in Missouri. Small school groups and others can arrange visits to the current small museum, though the cave is not open to the public. For now, it will be in the hands of the experts, working to uncover the secrets of the past.
The museum is located at 2327 W. Farm Road 190 in Springfield. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and by appointment on Saturdays. For more information, call 417-883-0594 or visit www.riverbluffcave.com.