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Ozark blind cave salamanders, known also as ghost lizards and grotto salamanders, live in subterranean systems in the Ozark Mountains -- and nowhere else in the world. They're pretty rare, and they often dwell in almost inaccessible caverns, so scientists still are learning about the behavior and quirks of this unique American amphibian.
When they hatch, cave salamanders can see. As larvae, they often live in streams in the “twilight” zones near cave entrances, where weak light filters in and a few plants grow. They also inhabit springs and brooks just outside caverns; in both of these habitats, their vision helps them find hiding places and prey.
After spending one to three years as larvae, the young salamanders follow streams or springs deep into caves, where they develop into adults. This process includes losing gills, fins and pigmentation; their skin eventually fades to white or pale tan. Without light, their vision deteriorates and, over about a year, their eyelids actually fuse shut.
Deep underground, temperatures remain around 58 degrees Fahrenheit all year. Adult Ozark blind cave salamanders live in streams or on nearby rocks. Most of the time, they never leave their deep, dark caverns. If they can't find food such as crickets and snails, though, they might venture into the twilight zone to hunt. They still shun light, hiding in the shadows beneath rocks during the day and emerging only at night.
As larvae, these salamanders often rely on their sight to find prey, usually small, blind cave invertebrates. Once they lose their vision, their sense of smell becomes much keener and helps them locate meals. Their skin also has lateral lines -- organs that pick up movement, pressure and vibrations in the water, signaling the location of prey.
Gray bats provide important supplements to Ozark blind salamanders’ diets -- so much so that caves with sizable bat colonies also have larger salamander populations. Bat droppings, called guano, attract beetles, flies, millipedes, snails and other invertebrates, which cave salamanders eat. Both adult and larval salamanders also dine on the guano, which serves as a rich source of nutrients. Meanwhile, many caves in the Ozarks have been closed to humans or sealed altogether because of "white nose syndrome," a highly contagious and usually fatal disease that threatens bats in the Ozarks and elsewhere. Before you plan a trip to the Ozarks, check the U.S. Forest Service website for information about cave closures.
Your best chance to see a blind cave salamander is during the spring or summer, when they conduct their mating rituals and stock up on food. Cave ecosystems are delicate, though, so don’t handle animals, remove rocks or venture into restricted areas.
- AmphibiaWeb: Eurycea Spelaea
- United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service: Ozark-St. Francis National Forests: Cave Life
- Great Plains Nature Center: Grotto Salamander
- Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism: Grotto Salamander
- The Natural History of Biospeleology
- United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service: Ozark-St. Francis National Forests: White Nose Syndrome
- Nature: Bat Guano Beats Burgers for Blind Salamanders
- Feeding Kinematics of the Grotto Salamander, Eurycea Spelaea (PDF)
- Missouri Department of Conservation: Grotto Salamander
- Encyclopaedia Brittanica: Lateral Line System