Historically, Shelta Cave is one of the most diverse cave systems in the eastern United States. Beetles, salamanders, shrimp, crayfish and other animals spent their days in the dark long before Neemiller and other scientists came along. Many burrowing species are often blind and lack pigmentation, and live longer than their surface-dwelling relatives due to slower metabolisms—a common evolutionary adaptation to subterranean life. For example, the red swamp crayfish, the unfortunate star of many Louisiana crayfish boils, can live for five years in the swamps and ditches they call home. Shelta’s Southern Cave Crayfish, O. australiswith a lifespan of up to 22 years, and is thought to have a similar lifespan in Shelta Cave crayfish.
A colony of grey bats also make Sherta Cave their home. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, these adorable furry “miniature bats” deposit guano throughout the cave — a valuable source of food for many other cave creatures, including the Shelta cave crayfish. The balanced ecosystem of bats, crayfish and other Shelta cave animals has remained undisturbed for centuries.
Then came the entrepreneur Henry M. Fuller. According to Scott Shaw, who manages the Shelta Caves Nature Reserve, Fuller bought the cave in 1888 and named it after his daughter. A year later, Fuller built a wooden dance floor and installed the city’s first electric lights in the cave, creating a popular entertainment venue. Fuller even runs wooden boat tours for tourists when the rain swells the underground lake. Fuller dubbed the cave “the eighth wonder of the world,” and his ad boasted: “All the discoveries of the Old World pale in comparison to the greatest sights on earth or below.” “Yes, this is It’s a big deal,” Shaw said, but it’s not meant to last.
After 1896, Shelta changed hands several times and reportedly even became a speakeasy during Prohibition. In 1967, the National Speleological Society (NSS), an organization that studies and protects the cave, purchased the cave to protect its unique ecosystem.