A brush with bats in a dark cave could be an unnerving experience, but officials with the U.S. Forest Service are convinced that bats have more to fear from such encounters.
On 27 July, the Service’s Rocky Mountain Region issued an emergency order closing caves on government-owned lands in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, and South Dakota because of concerns that recreational spelunkers are spreading a fungus that is obliterating North American bats.
White-Nose Syndrome, originally detected in 2006 in the northeast U.S., has killed at least one million bats during its spread south and westward. Nine species have been reportedly infected, including the endangered Indiana bat.
Scientists suspect that human spelunkers are aiding the fungus’ spread; spores have been detected on the gear of climbers who venture into infected caves and the fungus has leaped from region to region in a way that is hard to explain through bat-to-bat contact alone. By invoking a one-year closure, the Forest Service hopes to ward off the regional collapse of bat populations in the Plains States.
White-Nose Syndrome is characterized by a powdery fungus (Geomyces destructans) that grows on the faces, ears, wings, and feet of afflicted bats while they hibernate. The infected animals come out of hibernation severely underweight, prior to the arrival of spring insects, and eventually starve to death. Colonies with White-Nose Syndrome can lose 90 to 100 percent of bats in just two years. The loss concerns scientists because bats pollinate flowering plants, disperse seeds, and reduce the numbers of harmful insects.
Recent research suggests the disease may have originated in Europe. Zoologists there have reported white powder on bat muzzles since 1983, though populations remain healthy.
Whether on not the measure will help the bats remains to be seen. What is certain is that yesterday’s announcement extinguishes cave enthusiasts’ hopes for avoiding a moratorium—“Cave Armageddon”, as one spelunking blog describes it.
Image Credit: Wil Orndorff, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation