This month’s “Try This” features our contributing editor, Jayme Otto, crawling around in a Puerto Rican cave. But, bats all through the Americas are in trouble. A fungal infection, White Nose Syndrome, is irritating bats and disrupting their hibernation cycles all across the U.S.A and the fungus is causing huge die-offs. Since 2006, when it was first noticed in a cave in Albany, New York, White Nose Syndrome has spread down the East coast, and is starting to move west. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, hundreds of thousands of bats have died from it. Richard Rhinehart, author of Colorado Caves and editor of Rocky Mountain Caving, gave us his take on where White Nose Syndrome comes from, how it’s impacting the caving community, and what spelunkers can do to help.
Where is White Nose Syndrome showing up?
So far, it’s been found in nine states in the eastern United States. Not all species are being affected. It tends to be bats that live in big colonies, and the problem is that in the eastern United States, you have huge colonies. Because of the population in the East, bats congregate so that people will leave them alone. In places like Colorado, where bats live more independently, it’s not so bad. Not every colony will die from it. The fungus thrive at specific temperatures, 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which tend to be temperatures in caves along the Appalachians.
Where does it come from?
White Nose Syndrome is caused by fungus spores. We think it was brought over from Europe because of evidence of the fungus on European bats in the 1980s.
There is a lot of controversy right now over whether it is transferred from bat to bat, or by people carrying it between caves. There is evidence for both. It has traveled long distances, which indicates people, but biologists have also found it in locked caves, where it was probably transferred by bats.
What’s being done about it?
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to put a closure order on all of the caves in the East on federal property. There have been some closures of private caves as well. In the West, although there haven’t been cases of White Nose Syndrome, there has been some preemptive action. The Bureau of Land Management in Montana closed a cave in Billings, and there have been some decontamination efforts.
What can people in the caving community do?
There have been mixed feeling from cavers, because the caving community is national. In the West, not much is different, except for some decontamination. In the East people have become more angry and radical. It’s something that people have to come together about; it has split two old allies, bat biologists and cavers, who used to be close.
There are three things cavers can do. The main thing is to support research. Unfortunately, people are wary, because there has been misinformation in the past. People also have to recognize that there are instances where they have to follow closure orders and decontaminating procedures. If it’s there, follow it. It’s not that hard. The third thing to do is be observant. In most cases it’s been cavers that have spotted the bats, and then told the biologists.
For more information about White Nose Syndrome visit the National Speleological Society.