Historically, Shelta Cave was one of the most diverse cave systems in the eastern United States. Long before Niemiller and other scientists came along, bugs, salamanders, shrimp, crabs and other animals lived out their days in the dark. Often blind and without pigmentation, many cave species live longer than their surface-dwelling relatives, thanks to a slower metabolism – a common evolutionary adaptation to life underground. For example, the red swamp crayfish, the unlucky star of many Louisiana crayfish, can live up to five years in the marshes and ditches they call home. Shelta’s Southern Cave Crab, O. australisit lives up to 22 years, and the Shelta cave crab is thought to have a similar lifespan.
A colony of gray bats has also made Shelta Cave their home. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, these adorable, furry “microbats” deposited guano all over the cave – a valuable food source for many other cave creatures, including Shelta cave crabs. For centuries, the balanced ecosystem of bats, crabs and other animals of Shelta Cave continued undisturbed.
Then came entrepreneur Henry M. Fuller. In 1888, Fuller purchased the cave, naming it after his daughter, according to Scott Shaw, who manages the Shelta Cave Nature Preserve. A year later, Fuller built a wooden dance floor and installed some of the city’s first electric lights in the cave, creating a popular entertainment destination. When rainwater swelled underground lakes, Fuller even led wooden boat tours for visitors. Calling the cave “the eighth wonder of the world,” Fuller published advertisements that boasted “all the discoveries of the old world pale into insignificance in comparison with this greatest sight on earth or underground.” “Yes, it was a big affair,” Shaw says – but it wasn’t meant to last.
After 1896, Shelta changed hands several times, allegedly even becoming a trading company during Prohibition. In 1967, the National Speleological Society (NSS), an organization that studies and protects caves, purchased the cave to preserve its unique ecosystem.