Roxie Campbell is listening intently to her crew. "Iso 1," a voice calls out from a few feet away. "Iso 4," another answers without skipping a beat. "Iso 2" ... "Iso 10" ... "Iso 1."
Campbell is seated on a clay bank in the black depths of Devil's Icebox Cave, a hundred feet or so under Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. Campbell, a park naturalist for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, knows the ins and outs of Devil's Icebox. She's the leader of this research expedition.
But right now she's playing secretary. Darla White and Jeff Page are finding isopods, tiny members of the crustacean family that resemble pasty underwater centipedes, at a brisk pace. They are on their hands and knees in the middle of the eight-foot wide stream. The two work in uncanny unison as their hands deftly violate the isolation of this shallow creek. As they lift rocks out of the water, isopods scurry out of the blinding light from the Xeon headlamps on the researchers' helmets. White and Page have to count quickly.
Jeffrey Friel stands in the ankle-deep water with a ruler in hand. The photographer and I complete the group.
"Iso 2" ... "Iso 5" ... the almost rhythmic announcements continue ... "Iso 1" ... "Iso 10" ... "Iso 3" ... "I've got one!"
There's no need to say what was found. Everyone knows. The anticipation that had been building for the past few agonizing minutes dissipates instantly, replaced by beaming smiles and a sense of satisfaction.
White has found a pink planarian.
All is right again in this little underground world.
Like the Kewpie mascot at Hickman High School, the pink planarian is truly Columbia's own. First collected by P.W. Frank in 1955, the pink planarian, or macrocotyla glandulosa, has been found nowhere in the world other than Devil's Icebox Cave.
"This is an indicator species as far as the quality of the streams and the water," Campbell said. "This water comes from about a (13-square mile) watershed, which is mostly privately owned and contains residences, farmlands, businesses, roads. There's a lot of potential for pollution to enter the ground."
Darla White looks for pink planaria in a stream inside Deil's Icebox. A member of the flatworm clan, the pink planarian is a unique organism only found in the Rock Bridge Memorial State Park cave.
So research trips are scheduled through the year. Campbell and her groups count the pink planaria, isopods, anthropods and anything else they find. Because of the remote and secretive nature of Devil's Icebox, determining a complete pink planarian population isn't realistic. The goal is to check established locations to find population and environmental patterns.
Surveyors search for isopods, snails and pink planaria inside a stream in the Devil's Icebox cave system on April 30. The survey is conducted twice a year to measure changes in the wildlife in the cave system.
Although it's only been found in relatively limited numbers and seen by even fewer people, the pink planarian isn't on the federal rare, threatened or endangered species list. It's not that it wouldn't qualify; there just isn't enough research on the species to include it — yet. The pink planarian is listed on the Missouri endangered list, classified as S1 (critically imperiled) and G2 (globally imperiled).
In this little underground world, regular cotton long underwear is no good.
It has to be the quick-drying stuff, made of either polyester or polypropylene (lovingly referred to as "polypro" to those who use it often). It's not too cold in the cave, but a few hours with soaked, water-retaining cotton clinging to the skin will make even the heartiest soul pray for the polypro gods to deliver the latest in fiber technology.
An ordinary work boot won't make the final cut either. Steel toes are nice, but they're considered a luxury in Devil's Icebox. All that really matters, aside from the required three-quarters height for proper ankle support, is the amount of space between the lugs in the shoe's tread.
Big lugs are nice; high-top football cleats are ideal. The clay is thick; the slopes are steep and slippery. The extra traction translates into confident steps.
The clothing essentials are just two elements on an impossibly long list of preparations and considerations to examine before heading into Devil's Icebox. The list is long but it's also necessary. Each item is there because of the experience of the cave guides.
For example, there is a 10-point checklist to consider before purchasing your required headlamp. Three LED lights are the minimum; battery life, waterproofness and spare bulbs should be taken into account as well. Extra batteries are a must.
This research trip, this search for the mysterious pink planarian, is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a spring Saturday, with one little caveat.
If it starts to rain while the expedition is flipping rocks and recording data, that would be bad. That could make for a little bit longer trip.
There's one particular spot on the journey with about two feet separating the ceiling from the creek. The travelers are forced to lie prone in the canoe to slip under the low clearance. If, by chance, a strong downpour raises the creek by more than a few inches, the way home quickly becomes blocked.
That's when the waiting kicks in. So how long would the waiting last? That depends. Campbell is slightly less than reassuring when she says that if the rain stops quickly, probably not more than a day. If it continues raining, the expeditioners' calendars could be wiped clean.
But, she says, she hasn't seen that happen. Nobody has gotten stuck since the cave has been under DNR control. Still, she's quick to promise a stockpile of supplies — including a few packs of playing cards — stashed away in the cave's Big Room.
Less than a week before the trip is scheduled to depart, the outlook is not too good. The meteorologist's favorite forecast crutch during a Missouri spring — isolated thunderstorms possible — pop up all over the weekly planner.
On Friday, the day before the trip, there's a 90 percent chance of rain. Because the water that flows through Devil's Icebox is drawn from a 13-square mile watershed, it won't take too much to rise past an acceptable level.
But the rain never materializes on Friday, and on Saturday morning — ironically enough, the first brilliantly sunny day of the week — the group assembles at the Rock Bridge State Park office. The "Release and Covenant Not to Sue" forms, which always inspire confidence, are signed and the preparation stage is finished.
Once at the trailhead, the packs are strapped on and the 65-pound canoes are lifted for the quarter-mile hike to the cave entrance. It's mostly an uphill climb.
The canoes are not typical Ozark river canoes. They're short, snub-nosed and sit very low in the water. The factory seats have been replaced by pine boards just a few inches above the canoe bottom.
They are designed with one goal in mind — the lowest clearance possible. The slightest sway invites the water within inches of pouring in.
It's less than a hundred feet into Devil's Icebox when our group glides under a large group of bats. There are dozens and dozens of them, mostly gray bats, huddled together on the ceiling, just a few feet above head level.
In the spaces without bats, there are constant reminders of life as it used to be. The Burlington limestone cave has millions of tiny fossils lining the ceiling and walls.
A SCARY CAPSIZE
At our first portage, Campbell suggests that maybe it's a good idea for the photographer to seal his camera in a waterproof bag. We're heading into a deeper stretch of water and it's better to be safe than sorry.
Campbell is the first to shoot through Torpedo Tube, a three-foot wide opening where the experienced Devil's Iceboxer can use both hands along the ceiling to move quickly to the next opening. Done right, you can pick up a bit of speed. Done wrong ... well.... on either side of the tube the ceiling is about a foot above the water level.
As the photographer and I float in, with no intention to pick up any speed, I realize the paddle lying across my lap is too wide for the passage. So I shift a bit and tuck the paddle into the canoe. Bad idea. My shift slides the back end of the canoe ever-so-slightly to the right.
Lying nearly flat on my back in the canoe, I reach out and push a bit too hard on the ceiling.
Another bad idea.
This only succeeds in nosing the front end to the left edge of the tube.
Not sure why we're shifting, the photographer calls out my name. There's a bit of concern in his voice.
He pushes, forcing my end farther under the low ceiling.
He calls out again. There's definite tension now.
I push again. In my position, I have no leverage. All that happens is I force the left side of the canoe perilously close to the creek. On an open river, this dilemma would easily be solved by leaning hard to the right. That's not possible in the confines of Devil's Icebox.
He calls out once more, with the terror evident in his tone. I can't do anything. I feel helpless.
One last attempt to shove the canoe into the middle fails. We're going down. But there's a moment, wedged between wildly peaking panicked thoughts, of complete calm and acceptance. The worst has now happened, and as long as the water isn't too deep, we'll be OK.
The shocking cold of cave water hits the skin. Then the hope that soon the submerged cleats will hit the bottom of the creek. They do, about five feet below the water's surface.
It only takes a moment for the canoe to sink. It will take the rest of the day to dry off. On the outside, it's a bright, sunny day perfect for drying out wet clothes. In the belly of Devil's Icebox there is no such help.
It's at this point that insistence on proper clothing is appreciated. Maybe those lists weren't too impossibly long after all. White and Page generously loan extra layers to keep everybody warm.
The camera, thankfully, is dry.
Stretched out, the pink planarian looks like a pale earthworm that wound up on the business end of a steamroller. Curled up, it looks a bit like a loogie. The center of the pink planarian is white with a pale reddish tinge. The edges of the pink planarian are transparent.
So what exactly is it? The pink planarian is a member of the flatworm clan, with two relatives in the same genus. One, with the scientific name macrocotyla lewisi, is known in three cave systems in southeastern Missouri (Perry County); the other, macrocotyla hoffmasteri, has been found in 10 cave systems in eastern West Virginia.
The Devil's Icebox special has a few features that set it apart.
"It's partly the extraordinary number and size of the glands associated with the sexual organs," Campbell said.
It's quite an intricate little organism.
"For an animal that doesn't look like much, it has a great deal of complexity in its body," Campbell said. "It has both male and female sexual organs in each individual, so it is capable, at least theoretically, of reproducing on its own. They have a brain and a nervous system. In fact, they're one of the simplest animals that does."
There is still much about the pink planarian that isn't certain. It is known to be a predator lodged in the middle of the cave's food chain. Campbell said the pink planarian has been observed wrapped around an anthropod. There are no known predators, but researchers have reported a likelihood that crayfish feed on the pink planarian.
The pink planarian isn't the only species unique to Devil's Icebox Cave. On a 2003 trip, a previously unknown isopod was found. It was sent to a taxonomist, where it was determined to be a new member of the genus Caecidotea.
"Here we are in the 21st century finding new species in our cave," Campbell said.
SUCCESS IN NUMBERS
White found her 1.5 centimeter-long planarian, described as "orangy-pink," nestled under a rock in 17 centimeters of water.
It was the first of four officially recorded at the Shark plot, named for a cave formation that looks like, well, a shark, complete with dorsal and tail fins.
Our next plot, with the uninspiring name 1940L, has a much sandier bottom than the Shark plot. There are no pink planaria there.
At the final plot of the day, in the Big Room, we hit the jackpot. The stream is wider here, so Campbell, Page and Friel divide the real estate and get to work. I get to play ruler boy, treading back and forth to provide accurate measurements to White, who is recording the findings.
It doesn't take long before the pink planaria start showing up in rapid succession. There are nine discovered at the Big Room plot, most within the first two meters.
That brings the official expedition total to 13. There were three more found outside of the official plot areas.
Two of those were proudly found by the guy who sank the canoe.