Cavers Face to Face with Bat Epidemic

| May 4, 2012

For those who like dark places and clambering between rocks, caves are exciting already. But if there’s one thing that can up their wow-factor, it’s bats. Recently, Sweet Briar students saw both during a spelunking trip to Island Ford Cave in Covington. Director of outdoor programs Tasha Purcell and instructors Jordanne Ryan ‘12 and Victoria Litos ‘13 led the excursion. They joined up with Sweet Briar’s naturalist-in-residence, Mike Hayslett, and bat educator Bonnie Miles, who was recently recognized for her work by Bat Conservation International in the winter issue of BATS magazine.

The Tyvek-clad spelunkers discovered 21 of the small creatures and noticed that one was clearly sick with white-nose syndrome, named for the white fungus evident on the muzzles and wings of affected bats. To prevent the spread of WNS, the BCI decontamination protocol requires cavers to wear disposable coveralls. It is the first disease known to target a hibernating animal, Bonnie says.

The fungus enters their system and interferes with hibernation, usually leading to the animal’s death.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the disease was first documented at four sites in eastern New York in the winter of 2006 and 2007. Since then, WNS has spread rapidly to multiple sites throughout the Northeast, affecting 19 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. Nineteen species of bats have been infected with the disease, and more than six million bats have died from it so far.

“That equates to between seven hundred and thirteen hundred metric tons of insects not eaten each summer,” Bonnie says, alluding to the ecological consequences of the disease.

While WNS wasn’t the focus of the caving trip, it was a poignant illustration to students who had talked about the disease before, but never experienced it first-hand.

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Category: Summer 2012