Georgia Wildlife Resources Division
2070 U.S. Hwy. 278, SE, Social Circle, GA 30025
The Cumberland Plateau is Georgias smallest physiographic region, encompassing only about 865 square miles or 1% of the state's area. Located in the very northwest corner of the state, this region comprises a high elevation plateau that extends into both Tennessee and Alabama and ranges from 880 to 2,200 feet in elevation.
Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain form most of the Cumberland Plateau region in Georgia. They differ from the mountains of the Ridge and Valley by their flat tops. Both the Cumberland Plateau and the Ridge and Valley provinces are primarily sedimentary rock (formed by marine sediments compressing over millennia) such as shale (formed from silt) and sandstone (formed from sand).
Much of the Cumberland Plateau is underlain with limestone, formed from the shells of marine organisms deposited in a prehistoric sea between 300-425 million years ago. Limestone is a soft and porous rock notorious for cave formations. Caves form when limestone is dissolved by weak acids produced when rainwater combines with carbon dioxide. This process of chemical erosion created some of the deepest caves east of the Mississippi, including Ellisons Cave, which has drops of up to 600 vertical feet. Several rivers have eroded deep canyons into the high plateau, forming impressive landforms such as Cloudland Canyon and Johnsons Crook.
Roughly 500 caves are known in Georgia. They are mostly found in the Cumberland Plateau, Ridge and Valley and Coastal Plain provinces. A recent cave survey documented 173 invertebrate species from 47 Georgia caves, ranging from worms, to mollusks, molds and beetles. Many vertebrates also make caves their homes, permanently or temporarily. Troglobites are animals that only live underground, while trogloxenes are species that spend time in caves but must come to the surface for food.
Living underground in caves generates some unique adaptations among many cave dwelling creatures. Troglobites are often blind and have lost skin pigments, so they appear white. They often find their way around with extensive antennae. There are several species of fish, salamanders and crayfish that live only in caves. Trogloxenes includes bats, rats, and cave crickets (perhaps the most common cave species). One of the most common bats that roost in Georgias caves is the Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus). Like all Georgia bats, they are insectivores. They depend on echolocation to find their food at night, as well as navigate dark caves. Disturbance to bats during hibernation or during the breeding season can lead to high rates of mortality for both adults and young.
Although cave wildlife is fascinating, geological formations are often the most spectacular aspect of cave exploration. Minerals deposited on the roof, walls, and floors of caves form speleothems, such as stalactites and stalagmites, which create the moonscape appearance of many caves.
Key Plants and Animals
Many animals are restricted to the Cumberland Plateau region in Georgia. Most of them are amphibians that live in and amongst the canyons, cliffs and caves. The Zigzag Salamander (Plethodon dorsalis) is one such creature. They live in the mountain forests and are found most often near springs and cave openings. The Tennessee Cave Salamander (Gyrinophilus palleucus) resembles many other cave dwelling organisms with reduced eyes and pigmentation. The Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus) one of the climbing salamanders is well adapted for its life on the cliffs and caves, where it can compress itself into narrow crevices to avoid predators and inclement weather.
The Common Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica) resides only in the Cumberland Plateau. These beautifully patterned turtles tend to live in rivers and lakes, feeding primarily on snails and crayfish. Female map turtles grow much larger than males. Pollution and river channelization have led to decreased map turtle populations. Also in some Southeastern states populations have decreased due to collection for the pet trade.
Bats often use caves as roosting sites. Two endangered bats are found in northwest Georgia, the Gray Bat (Myotis grisescens) and Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis). These species have only been found in a small handful of caves in the Cumberland Plateau.
Historic records suggest that Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) used to nest on the Cumberland Plateau. Much effort was expended to reintroduce this impressive raptor to Georgia without much success.
Other Key Species:
Northern Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus)
Northern 2-lined Salamander (Eurycea bislineata)
Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifaga)
Cumberland Pond Slider (Trachemys scripta)
Southern Cavefish (Typhlichthys subterraneusis)
Sites to Visit:
Cloudland Canyon State Park in Trenton, GA - (706) 657-4050
Pigeon Mountain, Lafayette includes one of the deepest caves in the world (1,062 feet deep)
Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA - (706) 295-6041