Cold Water Cave’s Blind Cave Fish

Winneshiek County in Iowa has a federally recognized National Natural Landmark, called Cold Water Cave.  This cave is seventeen and a half miles long, perhaps even longer.  There are groups that are exploring the cave, and they still may come up with some new stuff.  Most of the land over the cave is privately owned, and the cave is not open to the public.

I have run across some tantalizing bits and pieces of information that the cave may contain its own unique species of cave adapted fish. 

If this is true, the fish is not scientifically described.  It would deserve at least a subspecies rank, if not a true species.  It would be endemic to Iowa and to this particular cave. 

Most of the information is fairly old and dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when the cave was discovered.  To my knowledge there have been no sightings since the early 1970s.

In December 7, 1969, shortly after the cave was discovered, an article was published about Coldwater Cave in “Picture Magazine”, which was a supplement to The Des Moines Sunday Register.  The story was written by Otto Knauth, and was called “How Iowans Risked Lives to Find Huge Cave.”

To quote form the article:

“Rimstone dams also have formed in the creek of the main passage.  Their origin is obscure; possibly they grew over a long period of low water in the creek.  About a mile back in the cave, one such dam has a fall of several feet and effectively cuts off any aquatic life in the creek above it.  Below that point, the stream is inhabited by a number of fish about four inches long which the cavers identified as slimy sculpins.  They have apparently adapted themselves to life in total darkness.  Their skin is a dull white, devoid of color pigments; they have vestiges of eyes but apparently are completely blind.  They show no reaction to the beam of a flashlight but nevertheless are quite difficult to catch as they are extremely sensitive to any movement in the water near them. 

Small trout also have been found; apparently they have not been in the cave long enough to adapt to the darkness.  The cavers also found small salamanders, earthworms, amphipods, and plant seedlings washed in from the surface.  The only other signs of life found so fare are raccoon tracks in one of the side passages, apparently left by an animal that found a small opening on the surface.”

This is what a normally colored slimy sculpin looks like:

Wikimedia commons:  Image was prepared by Ellen Edmonson and Hugh Chrisp as part of the 1927-1940 New York Biological Survey conducted by the Conservation Department (the predecessor to today’s New York State Department of Environmental Conservation). Permission for their use is granted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

There is more.

There is a Master’s thesis by R. Daniel Crone, that can be reached online here about the recreational potential of Cold Water Cave.  This thesis has some mentions of the “small white fish possessing nodes instead of eyes”, and references the Knauth article and a personal conversation with Dean Roosa of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Appendix A of the thesis lists fauna collected from cold water cave, including “sculpins, unidentified” (no mention of whether or not these are cave-adapted.)

So are there some of the fish in jars at Trowbridge Hall at The University of Iowa?

Does the fish exist?  What is its significance if it does? 

More later….


About the roused bear

Nature photographer from central Iowa.
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