American Caves Closing to Tourists to Save Bats

Travel News — By Carlo Alcos on October 26, 2010 at 10:38 am

Cave lovers might be disappointed by this news, but will hopefully understand the intention. As reported by Wired, a fungus dubbed White Nose Syndrome (for the Geomyces destructans fungus that grows on the noses of afflicted bats) has been affecting the populations of at least six cave-dwelling bats. Since 2006, it’s been estimated to have caused around 1 million deaths among the bat population. First identified in New York four years ago, it’s been found in caves in 14 eastern states as well as Ontario and Quebec. Researchers claim the 1 million deaths is a gross underestimate as they generally occur underground and out of sight.

The fungus eats through the bats’ wings and wakes them from winter hibernation. Fat reserves stored by the bats needed for survival until the next spring are depleted by the fungus. As an example, at Vermont’s Aeolus Cave, only 1/10th the population of 300,000 remain. The spores of the fungus can be carried by humans on their clothing and shoes, so to prevent transmission from cave to cave, the United States Forest Service is closing them.

The Bureau of Land Management has been trying to target only those caves that appear to be prime habitat for the fungus, but a plan being drafted might see a nationwide closure of caves. The likely cause of the outbreak was a tourist carrying the fungus from a European cave, where the bats are immune to it. They do admit though that not many infections have been caused by human transmission, that even if the caves were closed straight away, the same result might have been reached. The organized caving community is not too happy with the plan of action, saying they would rather see decontamination protocols followed to deal with the outbreak. A commenter on the article had this to say:

The idea of human intervention doing anything to stop this disease is laughable. What are we going to do, spray fungicide on every bat colony in the hundreds of thousands of caves in this country? Many caves are difficult and dangerous to enter, and there is not enough money, not enough time, and not enough specially-trained personnel that could do it. Not to mention there are many caves that bats use that we haven’t discovered yet. You can’t inoculate what you don’t know about. And any decon procedure would likely wreak havoc on the non-bat part of the cave ecosystem. And bats leave caves every day and sometimes roost in trees, under eaves, etc. Are we going to decon those places too? We might have a chance if we can breed a fungus-resistant bat with gene therapy and introduce it back into the environment, but even then there will have to be generations of die-off before the effects of that would be seen. This disease will run its course no matter what we do.

What do you think? Can human intervention save these bats? Or should we just let nature take its course?

[Image: Bat afflicted with White Nose Syndrome by US Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region / Flickr]

Tags: bats, caves, fungus

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