It is blind, and translucent. It stands as high as a grain of sand and, at its fattest, reaches 2 millimeters across the whorls of its shell.
It hides under stream rocks -- not consciously, for it doesn't have enough nervous system for intention, but by instinct, drawn to the slime, hungering for the bacteria that creep across its path.
It lives in complete darkness.
Because it is believed to inhabit only one spot on earth -- Tumbling Creek Cave, just southeast of Branson, Mo. -- it has been dubbed Missouri's Tumbling Creek cavesnail.
But if owning animals were p.c., it'd be Tom Aley's cavesnail.
He's spent more than a million dollars on this critter. Lost a wife to it. Bought land for it. Built it dams and swales. Raised it money by doing corporate consulting that drove him crazier than the world thinks he is already. Stayed up nights worrying how to keep it alive. Championed its rights on the simple assumption that all creatures, however small, matter to the universe.
It's a cavesnail.
It survives on fungal slime.
And a grand obsession.Aley earned his master's in bright, open-aired forestry in 1962, but his interest in natural resources drew him toward something far less valued than the great oaks and pines: slippery, misunderstood water. As he studied its flow and ebb, mystery took him deep into the ground, where water traveled unseen through cracks and fissures, gathering in hidden streams and waterfalls far below the surface. Eager to plant his flag in uncharted scientific territory, Aley vowed he'd be the one to fathom that journey.
He needed a cave.
More precisely, he needed an underground laboratory. There were only three in the world: one in Moulis, France; one in Romania; and one in China.
Aley decided that the U.S. needed a lab of its own. He would create it, and he would steer its course. None of his peers wanted to risk asthma or ruin his knees mucking about in caves, so he'd have a sure path to glory.
He started saving, and in 1965 he quit his cushy environmental-consulting job in LA and went cave shopping. He and his young wife traveled for nine months, camping and eating cheap.
The quest proved harder than he'd expected:
He didn't want land soaked in pesticides. He didn't want a cave under a concrete jungle. He didn't want a boring, single-aisle cave with a couple measly species.
His search spiraled toward Missouri, which has more than 5,000 known caves. Then a real-estate agent in Protem, Mo., way down in the Ozarks, mentioned a remote 125-acre parcel that happened to contain the old Tumbling Creek Cave, a.k.a. Bear Hollow.
Aley hesitated, mainly because the land was 75 miles from a big town's comforts and he wanted scientists to fly in from all over the country to convene at his cave. Still, it was far from row crops and rush-hour toxins, and it had rooms and upper passageways and all manner of habitat.
Most caves host 10 or 12 species; this one, he would discover, accommodated more than 100. Safe for centuries, untraumatized by any ecological disaster, the cave had allowed what's now politicized as "diversity" to thrive out of human sight. With the exception of a few brave teenagers who'd bragged about their intimacies on one of the passageway ceilings -- and a few obnoxious ones who'd smashed some stalagmites -- the ecosystem was pristine.
Aley used his last $3,500 as the down payment. Then he snagged a job as one of the first hydrologists for the U.S. Forest Service, which had just created a new classification for water experts. All weekend, every weekend, he worked on the cave, drilling and using explosives -- he'd gone to Berkeley, after all -- to blast a 2,100-foot trail through the first fifth.
In one hour, a human being sloughs off 60,000 bits of skin, 20,000 bits of lint or fabric and 160 million dust motes. Aley intended to confine as much of that as possible to a narrow central path. "Don't fondle the cave!" he cautioned visitors who, slipping on the muck, grabbed hold of ancient stalagmites, their surfaces as brown and bubbly as roasted turkey skin.
Aley brought in archaeologists to date the stalagmites -- which proved to be tens to hundreds of thousands of years old -- and the bones of what turned out to be a Pleistocene jaguar and a Pleistocene peccary, the latter a useful tongue-twister for tours. He started making puns about bats' hang-ups and curtains for the draperies. He even slept in the cave a couple of times.
In 1973, his wife left him, fed up with his eternal preoccupation and convinced he was never going to grow up. The next year, a young biologist with a background in zoology and water chemistry came to work at the cave. Cathy laid peanut-butter traps for the cave's amphipods and isopods, knowing they would scramble to eat the furry fungus that formed on top. She and Aley painstakingly glued together the smashed stalagmites, bending close to paint the seams with diluted clay and Portland cement.
She was as passionate about protecting natural systems as he was, and their mutual passion deepened, turned personal.
They married in 1975.
By then, Tom Aley already knew about the cave's special dweller.
The real-estate agent who'd sold him the place, Deb Walley, had come often to help drill the shaft and explore the cave's nether regions. A balding, pleasant-faced fellow whose rural high-school education hadn't come anywhere near satisfying his immense curiosity, Walley observed the natural world like a hawk and remembered every detail.
One day in 1969, wading in the cave stream, he turned over a rock and for the first time saw -- white specks.
Magnified 100 times, these specks revealed themselves to be cavesnails, their bodies a soft honeysuckle yellow, their whorled white shells translucent. They were devoid even of a rudimentary eye, Aley realized, so their ancestors must have dwelt in caves for centuries:
"At one time they would have descended from an eyed animal -- except in Kansas, where there is no evolution."
Intrigued by Walley's find, Aley paged through scientific journals, hunting for any reference to a similar cavesnail.
He recruited the expertise of aquatic biologists, but they'd never seen anything like it. In 1971, he got the snail's particulars published in the biology journal Nautilus, and he was sure: No one in the scientific community had ever come across Antrobia culveri. As far as they could tell, the cavesnail lived nowhere else in the entire world.
It was the only species in its genus. And its only habitat was Tom Aley's cave.
Aley swings the door open, and sunbeams cut into the shaft, lighting walls the warm tan of Jerusalem. Squinting through patches of light and dark, he climbs down steep narrow steps dripping with condensed moisture. In the twilit zone at the base of the stairs, he checks the battery pack strapped around his waist, then steps onto the trail.
It's a path he's followed for 35 years.
He knows what people think of his obsession; he hasn't sunk so far into science's oblivion that he's lost sentience. But he's not a man who troubles himself about gossip, or even common sense.
Day after day, he descends into the cave.
Blackness slips over him like an executioner's hood.
As he walks forward, he swings his flashlight beam in an arc. Dozens of mouse-tiny, velvety beige bats hang upside down within the folds of the cave's crystallized draperies, watching him approach.
Contrary to lore, bats aren't blind at all, but almost everything else in here is. The cave webworm, larva of a fungus gnat, spins shimmery homes it never sees. The grotto salamander starts life with eyes, but then the lids fuse and the back of the eyeball disintegrates.
Troglobites -- cave creatures that have lived without sunshine for thousands of years -- don't need eyes. They hear and feel their way through this monochrome world, their skin drained of pigment, their survival hinging on darkness.
And on Aley's vision.
That vision is partly self-centered: Cast in melodrama, he is these creatures' savior, the godlike being who, from above, orchestrates and perpetuates their survival. But years of sacrificed time and money and passion have worn away much of the ego, and what shines through the bare spots is a genuine affection for the cave's grotesques.
He would never put it that way, of course. A scientist, leery of melodrama and sensationalism, Aley talks in calm, rational sentences about damaged habitats and ecosystems. He presents himself as the visible spokesman for an invisible world.
But he's walking a thin line between the noble and the absurd.
On either side of the trail, his beam picks out floss-thin white millipedes clinging to the cave wall, gray spiders, a tiny bat skull as delicate as spun sugar. He shines the flashlight up inside a hollow column formed by the meeting of a stalagmite and a stalactite; shows where an ancient bear slid along a high ledge, leaving a coarse black hair to fossilize in the crystal; and spotlights, with a flourish, the place he found the bones of the Pleistocene jaguar.
Stories cling to every ledge and cranny of this cave -- yet he keeps moving.
He is looking, always, for the unseen. For something whose genetic code is unique and irreplaceable. Something whose tiny existence holds clues to huge, menacing environmental problems. Something whose life is so damned insignificant, nobody else would think twice about it.
The trail twists, leading under an overhang that turns towering, barrel-chested Aley into Quasimodo. Luckily, the cave rock he's banged his head into so many times is not the cold sleek granite of bank lobbies but a blend of dolomite and chert as soft and porous as old florist's foam. Water trickles through the walls, tumbles down waterfalls, drips from stalactites hanging like dipped tallow, slides around knobby crystals of cave coral.
The temperature down here stays about 60 degrees Fahrenheit all year, free from the caprices of ice storms and heat waves. The air stands motionless, heavy with moisture and a calm, ancient sameness.
After a few claustrophobic yards, the trail opens into a gothic cathedral, its crystal ceiling 60 feet high -- and 170 feet below the earth's surface. The sound of burbling water grows louder as Aley walks toward the cave stream.
Across the rock footbridge, he steps carefully off the trail and squats by the streambank, swirling his finger through the black water, stirring clouds of silt. Then he stares at a flat rock in the streambed, and rests, just for a second, his wet finger on its surface.
On top, at least, its gray is plain and smooth -- unspeckled -- offering no sign of what he's seeking, no proof of the faith that's sustained him for 35 years. The faith that the near-invisible matters as much as we do.
He stares a while longer. "Maybe they're here," he says finally, rising to his feet.
"And maybe they're not."
Through the '70s, Tom and Cathy watched the cavesnails with proprietary delight. The first survey had indicated a population of about 15,000. Every year, the Aleys checked the cavesnails' water and monitored their numbers.
Every year, the numbers fell.
The population of none of the other species in the cave was decreasing -- except a larger aquatic snail that lived near the entrance. Was some sort of snail disease rampant? Was there a new snail predator?
Nothing checked out.
In the '80s, as the cavesnail's count continued to fall, the Aleys began to wonder whether ammonia and nitrate loads from livestock feedlots were cutting into the cave's dissolved oxygen levels or chemicals from highway maintenance and spills were seeping into the water system. Possible, but not probable, because the other pollution-sensitive organisms in the cave were thriving.
Then the Aleys started thinking about the nine square miles of land that drained into the cave. Much of it had been overgrazed, and with no vegetation to hold the soil in place, more and more silt was entering the cave water.
Cavesnails hate silt.
Back in 1974, a visiting scientist had noted that the snails preferred the clear parts of the stream. The animals' instinct was perfectly logical: Silt would coat their fragile shells and weigh them down, clogging their gills and food filters and roadblocking their hunting expeditions. It could also suffocate their babies and impede whatever undisclosed intimacies allowed them to reproduce in the first place.
Was silt the culprit? Aley caught himself wishing he could talk to the little specks, ask what was causing the problem, ask what he could do to fix it.
Grain-sized, translucent blind snails aren't big on conversation.
Instead, Tom and Cathy proceeded as scientists, fusing her biological knowledge with his hydrogeological expertise. He'd started conducting groundwater tracings in 1970, staining spores of Lycopodium, a genus of mosses, with fluorescent red, green and peach dyes and injecting them into creeks and sinkholes.
Down below, he sank fiberglass-mesh packets of charcoal into underground streams. At regular intervals he'd pull them up, analyze the results in his lab and see how many color-coded spores the water had carried to that location.
He found water dripping from stalactities that had made its way down from the surface, through 100 feet of bedrock, in less than a week. After one crashing thunderstorm, water from a bridge miles away showed up in the cave in 24 hours.
The Aleys knew the cave's recharge area; they knew how the water -- and the silt -- seeped into the cave through sinkholes and crevices or percolated through gravelly soils and stream bottoms. They'd mapped, as tightly as possible, the underground maze, and they knew how fast its water traveled.
They'd done what they could in the dark.
But if they wanted to save the barely visible, one-of-a-kind Antrobia culveri, they'd have to climb up to the earth's sunbaked surface and fix damage any fool could see.
Aley pulls his forest-green Mitsubishi Montero off the road at the crest of a hill.
"Everything the other side of that road is what we bought," he says, gesturing grandly to take in vast curves of toast-brown pasture. "On the left side, we bought 1,350 acres. On the right, the land belongs to one of the people who work for us."
Aley slides the vehicle back onto the road and drives a half-mile. "Now, all the stuff on the right is ours," he says. "All told, we've bought more than 2,500 acres -- which means I'm looking at early retirement at 77."
The Aleys saw the first "For Sale" sign, stuck in a barren patch at the edge of 120 acres, back in 1990. They looked at each other.
"Can we do it?" asked Cathy.
Without being sure, they made an offer. Since then, they've spent $1.4 million buying some of the worst land around. They now own one-fourth of the cave's recharge area.
They've also acquired a heavy debt, because they didn't have $1.4 million.
Periodically, they fly off to the rainforests of Indonesia, the salmon fisheries of southeast Alaska or the glowworm caves of New Zealand to work for hard cash. There are fringe benefits -- such as slicking on a wetsuit and going blackwater rafting beneath a sky of glowworms -- but the main point is the consulting fee, which they carry back to safeguard their cave.
The irony is complete: Aley has done exactly what he set out to do when he was young and brash and filled with his own importance. He has made himself a name, won international fame and a unique place in science.
When people want a hydrogeologist who can fathom the groundwater, they call Aley. And now that kudos are rolling in, he's bored by it, bored by the prospect of jetting around the world, pronouncing expert truths.
He'd rather pry a grain-sized bubble from the mud.
A John Deere bulldozer stands ready near a huge mulch pile, waiting for the two staffers the Aleys hired to help rehabilitate the land. Add those expenses to the mortgages, and Project Cavesnail is costing them about $350 a day, seven days a week.
Aley tosses the number as he bounces the SUV across another field. The ground is laid bare, overgrazed and eroded, littered with cow skeletons. Folks call this section Death Valley because the cows came here to die. The land itself is dead, scarred by erosion gullies that look like incisions with chunks of flesh missing. Originally oak-and-hickory woodland, it was bulldozed fence to fence for pasture. Now sediment pours off its surface, clouding the groundwater, plugging up openings in the gravel matrix, clogging the interstices of the cave.
And fucking with the cavesnail.
"You get covered in sediment, your food's covered in sediment, your gills are clogged with sediment," says Aley, angry as an outraged social worker defending the underclass.
Erosion gullies on his new land run 5 feet deep. He scuffs gently at a swirl of soft green vegetation, nudges away a cow skull.
"This owner had about 500 cows on 1,350 acres," he says. "When he cleared this pasture, he pushed all the trees into the valleys, where the stream has to cut around them and make more channels. We pull out the stumps and push the soil back up where it belongs, make U-shaped swales and mulch them."
The first swales have already grassed over, and the newest is about to be seeded.
"I used to get paid for doing this," he says wryly, remembering erosion-control studies he did for the Forest Service. "Now I'm spending money for the privilege."
They have already filled in 2,600 feet of ditch and by May could have as much as two miles of scarring healed. The neighbors are watching in amazement: Nobody else around here does this kind of thing with the land. Many have managed it well enough that there's no need -- but even if there were, they couldn't afford the rehab.
"If a typical person bought land, even land this bad, they'd have to make some money with it," says Aley. "What this land needs is to rest for a year."
He breaks off to wave at a passing truck -- "Gotta say hello to the neighbors" -- then tries to describe how desperate a dairy farmer can get, throwing more and more cows on his land to stave off bankruptcy.
He climbs back into the Montero and drives to the next field. This one he calls Afghanistan. He parks at the edge and steps over the fence, its bottom third buried in gravel that washed downhill.
He walks uphill alongside a deep gully, then stops to peer into a sudden plunge pool. Frayed brown roots drip down the top edge, far above the surface of water that has scoured the bottom so deep that it looks dark green.
"That," says Aley, "is as bad as it gets."
Aley once dreamed of his underground laboratory as a hotbed of international research. Then politicians lost their constituents' trust and spooked -- and all those unsexy grants for basic research froze cold.
Today, Aley snorts phlegm at the notion of anyone agreeing to fund studies of a snail smaller than the last vestige of political imagination.
Resigned to a lonely cause, he and Cathy compile as much information as they can, talk up their snail at scientific cocktail parties and continue their monitoring.
Last year, they didn't find a single cavesnail at any of the established stations.
They panicked. Was it over, as simply as that?
They widened their search and found 40 cavesnails huddling upstream from an old, perhaps muddied haunt.
Area biologists agree with the Aleys' theory of sediment. They assume the cavesnail breathes by fluffing air over its gills, a process easily clogged by silt. They believe it reproduces by laying eggs, but exactly how and when those eggs are laid -- and whether the silt suffocates the babies as they hatch -- nobody knows.
What they do know is that last fall, in the well-upholstered office of the Secretary of the Interior, the cavesnail got lucky.
The U.S. Department of the Interior had missed many a mandatory deadline in its underfunded, fumbling attempts to protect endangered species. Three conservation groups -- the Center for Biological Diversity, the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project and the California Native Plant Society -- offered to stop brandishing lawsuits if the department would spend all that lawyering money on protection. Then they all sat down together and listed the 29 species in the direst straits, granting them emergency protection for 240 days.
Alongside the pygmy rabbit and the showy stickseed, just up from the Mississippi gopher frog, was Missouri's Tumbling Creek cavesnail.
For Aley, the settlement was pure bonus: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had known of the cavesnail's existence for years, and he had kept them posted on its decline, but he'd never pushed for special consideration. In the Ozarks, the topic of federal protection is stickier than snail slime.
"I have to live down here with these people," says Aley. "I'd just as soon have it that the government did this, but I think it's a good thing."
When his neighbors knit their brows, he reminds them that invoking the Endangered Species Act works to his benefit.
"It lets me control the bureaucrats," he says. "If the feds want to put a highway on my land, they need permission. Sure, there are prohibitions: The cavesnail's protected from collection, harm or harassment, which means now no one can pursue or capture it. Legally, that means I should not even turn rocks to look for it. Now, I'm not going to get into whether or not I do that. But we should not allow these things to just disappear from the face of the earth. When an aquatic animal is listed as endangered, you have to be concerned with the entire area that affects the water."
In other words, his manic cleanup project is looking saner by the minute.
Emergency protection runs out Aug. 26.
By that time, U.S. Fish & Wildlife will have posted the cavesnail's relevant data in the Federal Register, allowed public comment on the species' status and decided whether these little guys rate a permanent listing as endangered.
Meanwhile, since the discovery of the cavesnail, the Aleys have found five more organisms -- a rolypolylike millipede, a terrestrial isopod, an amphipod, a dipluran, a phalangodid harvestman and a cave spider -- that exist in Tumbling Rock Cave but have never been described in the scientific literature.
The cavesnail's new prestige will protect their ecosystem, too.
And that, in the end, is the point: The balance of the entire ecosystem, the cave world as a whole. The Aleys just can't put it that way, because the law, the funding mechanisms and the clueless public all require a single, discrete, tightly labeled object.
Enter the cavesnail, a 2-millimeter microcosm of the whole.
Judging from the most recent count, there are perhaps 150 cavesnails left, just 1 percent of the population estimated in 1970.
There could be more, of course; there could be a vast subterranean cavesnail empire hidden in the farthest crannies of the cave.
But there probably isn't.
As soon as the emergency protection came down, the Aleys talked to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service about a research grant. The government officials listened, nodded and smiled. It's not every day they have a world-famous hydrogeologist and a biologist on site, concerned, willing to work and already invested -- $1.4 million invested -- in the outcome.
The Aleys raced back to the cave and built an instrumentation platform at the weir, a small dammed channel where they were already monitoring stream flow. With federal money and sophisticated probes, they will be able to record, every 10 seconds, the water temperature, the levels of dissolved oxygen and dissolved rock, turbidity and flow rate.
"It's all related to trying to recover the snail," says Aley, who no longer apologizes for sounding ludicrous.
Aboveground, he intends next to inject tracer dyes into the drainage ditches and follow the sediment's path to the cavesnails. He's eager for the data, which will yield clues to the entire ecosystem. But what matters most of all, he says straight-faced, is doing what's best for the cavesnail.
Only one other possibility still haunts him.
High in the upper passageway, where stalagmites stick up like 1,000 hopeful penises, there's a cave room filled with a vast pile of the stuff, the botanical record of thousands of years of pollens locked into its gray-brown goo -- because every summer, about 150,000 gray bats, another federally listed endangered species, invade the cave like retirees making the winter pilgrimage to Fort Lauderdale.
Unlike the solitary Eastern pipistrelle, the grays are colonial bats, hanging 160 to a square foot. At twilight, they fly out of the mouth of the cave in great dark swoops, thousands at a time. They hunt and eat about 1,000 pounds of insects every night, and, once back in the cave, they drop enough guano to cater 95 percent of the smaller creatures' meals.
The guano breaks down, over time, into a full menu of microorganisms. And it's the cave's oxygen supply that fuels that process.
What if it's depleted oxygen that's killing off the cavesnails? What if one endangered species is endangering the other?
The bats hang silent, taunting Aley even after they're dead. Their claws curve into the rough stone of the cave's ceilings, and they stay clenched in that position. Humans need a burst of muscle energy to make a fist, but bats, their brains wired the opposite way, need a burst of energy to relax one.
So will Aley, if he's forced to make some sort of "Sophie's choice" that risks one endangered species to save the other.
He tries not to think about that scenario; instead, he looks past it to the future, searching for ways to protect the cave's ecosystem long after he's worm food. Twangy, touristy Branson lies just 25 miles to the northwest, and its count of annual visitors is expected to increase from 6 million in 1992 to 11 million by 2015.
That means more development, more potential for erosion and toxins. The Aleys know they can deed the land over to the Nature Conservancy, but they also know that will just "put a fence around it" without making it self-sustaining.
Frantic as the aging parents of a special-needs child, Tom and Cathy stay up nights hatching moneymaking schemes to preserve the cavesnail's home. They weren't wild about the implications of emergency protection: An organism that exists only in their cave, under their stewardship, is wasting away in the nature's version of a trashed trailer park. But protected status opened the way for federal help.
Now, they need a guarantee for posterity.
Kitsch is the obvious solution -- big billboards, a giant asphalt lot and a shuttle bus. But Aley refuses to romanticize the cave, tell ghost stories about its lore or make up Platonic allegories about its significance.
His passion is for the natural world, and in his mind the cavesnail's importance is obvious:
"The first rule of intelligent tinkering is, you don't throw away any parts."
Not everybody shares the Aleys' scientific sensitivity, though. People can be blinder than grotto salamanders, blinder even than a cavesnail without a rudimentary eye. When the Aleys heard the standard groans and chortles, they started presenting the cavesnail as an "indicator species" that reveals the clouded condition of the groundwater -- which gives thirsty, selfish people a reason to care.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service accepts that rationale, and so do the five scientists the agency asked to review the cavesnail's status. All agree that the cavesnail is in imminent danger and should be protected.
But nobody called Randy Simmons, who teaches environmental policy in and chairs the political-science department of Utah State University and critiques, from a market-economy perspective, the assumption that every species deserves saving.
"If he's spending his own money, great," says Simmons. "He's saving some bits of DNA that are represented nowhere else. And he has a far better chance of saving the snail than if the cave were on public land, because he can take real action. But if we're spending scarce public resources, I'd want them spent on keystone species, species that structure ecosystems, species higher on the food chain. A cavesnail that's only living in one place? Yes, its DNA is valuable and unique information, but we are not going to be able to save everything. Yes, its problems are an indication of water quality -- but isn't it cheaper to simply monitor the water?"
If the Aleys approached this as economists, they would never have invested $1.4 million in the first place. "We as landowners need to do our part, and so does the public at large," says Aley firmly. He'll take any grant the feds offer. He's saving a cavesnail that belongs to everybody.
His latest brainchild for the future is ecotourism: In-depth guided tours of the cave and the land-reclamation project. Photography outings, archaeology lectures, local recreation, overnight lodging at the nearby marina. An invitation to the public to share in the cavesnail's rescue.
Hardly anybody gets claustrophobic, he promises, and bats don't tangle themselves in people's hair. "An artist came once and said, 'This is the best museum I've ever been in, because you have to look for the exhibits, and they are all where they should be," Aley recalls. "The guy stayed so long he was late for his special dinner, and he walked into the restaurant all muddy, still in jeans, raving about the cave."
Now Aley buttonholes every visitor, asking whether ecotourism would fly.
"We'd have to get the yuppies," he muses. "They'll all come down in their SUVs that have never been off pavement ..."
The old dream, an underground convocation of international scientists doing amply funded research into the natural treasures of the underworld, has started to seem narrow, dry, elitist -- and just plain impossible. Maybe it's time to open the cave to people who never dreamed such a delicate, complicated world existed.
The Aleys could take them by the hand, force them to see beneath the surface.
In return, their money could help reclaim the land, preserve the cave's entire ecosystem and, along the way, save a magnificent obsession too small to be adopted, petted or put on a poster.
The world's only Antrobia culveri.