Current Paleontological Inventory Efforts in the Caves of Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Rickard S. Toomey, III1, Mona L. Colburn1, and Rick Olson2

1Geology Section, Illinois State Museum, 1011 East Ash Street, Springfield, IL 62702
2Division of Science and Resources Management, Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259

Abstract—Mammoth Cave National Park and the Illinois State Museum are cooperating on a three-year inventory of paleontological resources in selected park caves. The project focuses on paleontological resources associated with the sediments in the caves. The overall purpose of the project is to provide the park with information needed to properly manage its paleontological resources. The inventory will also provide important information needed to manage non-paleontological resources, because some of the resources provide information on cave conditions prior to intensive modification associated with tourist activities. The project involves detailed mapping and inventory of a variety of paleontological resources by personnel of the Illinois State Museum, Mammoth Cave National Park, and the Cave Research Foundation.


In late 1997 the Illinois State Museum (ISM) and the National Park Service entered into a cooperative agreement to begin an inventory of paleontological resources in caves within Mammoth Cave National Park. Field work under this three-year project has only been in progress for three months, so it is premature to begin discussing the results of the work. This paper will therefore focus on the goals of the project and the procedures being used to inventory paleontological remains within the park.

The goals of the Mammoth Cave National Park cave paleontological inventory are as follows:

• Identify paleontological resources within selected caves in the park.

• Determine the significance of the paleontological resources.

• Evaluate the present condition of paleontological resources.

• Map the location of paleontological resources and link them to cave resource databases and Geographic Information Systems currently in use and being developed at the park.

• Identify and evaluate current and potential factors (natural and management related) that will negatively impact paleontological resources within the park.

• Recommend actions that will prevent or mitigate the loss of paleontological resources or information caused by either natural or management-related activities.

• Use information from Holocene paleontological resources to provide information on cave environmental conditions before modification of the caves caused by historical use.

• Provide information for predictive modeling of the likelihood of significant paleontological resources for different types of caves or different areas of a single cave.

• Provide information on past use of some park caves by the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) and gray bat (Myotis grisescens), both of which are federally endangered.

• Provide information for reconstructing the past biota, environment, and climate of south-central Kentucky.

• Provide information on the paleontological resources of park caves to Division of Interpretation and Visitor Services personnel for use in programs.

Caves, including those found in Mammoth Cave National Park, provide access to two different classes of paleontological resources: autochthonous and allochthonous resources. Autochthonous resources are those remains associated with the original rock(s) in which the cave is formed and subsequently exposed for study by the processes of cave formation. Allochthonous resources are those remains that are deposited in the cave after the cave has formed. This type of resource includes the remains (and trace fossils) of plants and animals that either entered the cave or were deposited in the cave after death. Allochthonous resources include bones and mummified remains of animals that frequented the cave, scat of those animals (including guano, paleofeces, and coprolites), scratches and staining on cave walls and ceilings from animal activities, footprints, and remains of plants and animals that either washed in, fell in, or were brought into the cave as food items or nesting material by other animals. Although the park's caves have significant allochthonous and autochthonous paleontological resources, the current inventory focuses on theirallochthonous resources. However, when unusual autochthonous fossils are encountered, they are noted for later study.

The caves of Mammoth Cave National Park are extremely variable in many ways, including extent, entrance and passage types, ecology, and history. Even within a single cave these factors vary in important ways. For example, the cave for which the park is named, Mammoth Cave, is part of the largest cave system in the world, containing over 350 miles of passages. Some of the passages are large (tens of feet wide and high); others are very small with heights and/or widths of less than one foot. Some passages are readily accessible from current or past entrances; others are several miles from known entrances. Some passages have been visited by millions of people in the past 200 years the cave; others have been entered by only three or four people. Some portions of the cave were utilized by Native Americans approximately 2000 years ago and contain prehistoric archeological resources intermingled with paleontological resources. All of these factors contribute to differences in the paleontological resources between caves or between different areas within the same cave (or cave system). These differences in both the potential for and the type of paleontological resources are a key reason it is important to inventory these caves in detail.

Previous work clearly indicates that the caves in the park contain significant paleontological resources. Published records include an important Pleistocene bat guano deposit (Davies and Chao, 1959; Jegla and Hall, 1962; Rubin and Alexander, 1960), notable deposits of extinct Pleistocene megafauna (Wilson, 1981, 1985), and deposits of bones of recent bats (Jegla, 1963). In addition to these published records, files of the Cave Research Foundation (CRF), discussions with CRF personnel, and NPS files at the park all indicate that caves in the park contain significant paleontological materials that have not been adequately located, inventoried, and evaluated. The current project is the beginning of our attempt to address this situation.

In the current inventory, personnel from the ISM and Mammoth Cave National Park are being assisted by personnel from the CRF, which has been working with Mammoth Cave National Park for the past forty years. CRF is actively engaged in many avenues of research within the caves of the park including mapping the Mammoth Cave System; identifying, mapping and inventorying smaller caves in the park; and performing on-going biological, hydrological, geological, and archeological investigations of many of the park's caves. CRF personnel are assisting the paleontological inventory effort in many ways. Some are participating on crews that are locating resources. Others have provided important information on paleontological resources and the potential for resources in remote portions of the Mammoth Cave System and other park caves that ISM and NPS personnel had not yet visited. CRF personnel also act as guides and caving advisors to assist project personnel in reaching areas with paleontological materials (especially remote areas) and in mapping resources in those areas. In addition, CRF personnel are producing and providing the base maps and working maps onto which the paleontological remains are plotted. In some areas CRF crews are specifically surveying and mapping areas in conjunction with the paleontology inventory project. This is especially important in areas where previous maps do not exist or in areas where existing maps are inadequate to represent the resources. CRF is also working with the park on the development of the cave GIS and resource databases.

The current cooperative paleontological inventory will be accomplished in several phases. The first phase is examining the portions of the cave between the Historic Entrance and Violet City Entrance of Mammoth Cave. The paleontological inventory of this area is the highest priority portion of the inventory for several reasons. This area has been the focus of saltpetre mining and tourist activity in the cave during the past 200 years; it continues to be the focus of tourist activities today. Cave management associated with tourist activities can
impact paleontological resources. Significant paleontological resources have been previously identified in this area of the cave (Davies and Chao, 1959; Jegla and Hall, 1962; Rubin and Alexander, 1960). Remains from this area provide important information about the ecosystem of the Historic area of Mammoth Cave prior to the last 200 years of human modification of the cave. Information on the pre-historic cave ecosystem will help support cave management decisions that are designed to mitigate the effects of 200 years of intensive human modifications. The later phases of the project will focus on the past and present bat roosts in park caves and on a variety of more remote sites with known or suspected paleontological resources.

The paleontological inventory is being accomplished as follows. First, trained personnel of the ISM, NPS, and CRF carefully examine an area of cave and mark all potential paleontological materials with pin flags or flagging tape. Following this flagging, ISM paleontologists revisit each location and identify the resources at each flag. The material is recorded on data sheets, and remains are photographed with a digital camera. The location of each point is recorded in at least one of several ways. Where possible the points are plotted on maps of the cave produced by CRF. If maps have not yet been produced, points are recorded on the preliminary survey sketch made during the CRF mapping of the cave. Where convenient the points are also mapped using a total station theodolite. Information from the data sheets is entered into several databases, including a location, collection, and photographic database that are compatible with NPS software. Limited numbers of specimens are being collected as either vouchers for identifications or for age-dating. Management concerns that might impact the remains are also noted.

Because the Mammoth Cave System contains over 350 miles of passages and because the park contains numerous other caves (several over one mile in length), this three-year paleontological inventory will only serve as a beginning point for paleontology at Mammoth Cave National Park. The inventory will identify threats to paleontological resources, so that the impact of those threats can be avoided or mitigated, provide information to assist park personnel in making cave management decisions, and identify paleontological resources that should receive further study. In addition, it will provide information important in guiding further inventory efforts in the caves of the park.


Davies, W.E., and E.C.T. Chao. 1959. Report on sediments in Mammoth Cave: U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey Administrative Report. 117pp.

Jegla, T.C. 1963. A recent deposit of Myotis lucifugus in Mammoth Cave. Journal of Mammalogy 44:121-122.

———, and J.S. Hall. 1962. A Pleistocene deposit of free-tailed bat in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Journal of Mammalogy 43:444-481.

Ribin, M., and C. Alexander. 1960. U.S. Geological Survey radiocarbon dates V. Radiocarbon 2:129-185.

Wilson, R.C. 1981. Extinct vertebrates from Mammoth Cave. Page 339 in Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Speleology.

———. 1985. Vertebrate remains in Kentucky caves. Pages 168-175 in P.H. Dougherty, editor. Caves and Karst of Kentucky:
Kentucky Geological Survey, Special Publication 12.