Mike Groll/AP

Thousands of Caves Closed to Stop Spread of Bat-Killing Fungus

May 05, 2009 06:59 AM
by Rachel Balik
The U.S. Forest Service has closed caves and former mines in 33 states, hoping to stop the devastating spread of white-nose syndrome among bats.

U.S. Forest Service Closes Mines, Caves

Researchers cannot say for sure whether humans spread white-nose syndrome (WNS), a fungus that is destroying the bat population across the Northeast. It has killed 500,000 bats so far, and scientists know that it is spread from one bat to another. But biologist Dennis Krusac told the Associated Press that it might also be carried on human shoes and caving equipment.

To eliminate that potential vector, the U.S. Forest Service has decided to close thousands of former mines and caves in 33 states. White-nose syndrome was discovered in 2006; since then, it has severely reduced northeastern bat populations. The disease is named for the white fungus that frequently appears on the muzzles of infected bats.

A month ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service merely requested that people stay out of caves, Scientific American reported. Because of the speed and distance the disease was traveling, researchers suspected that human transmission was possible. At the time, the service said they would lift the advisory if evidence ruling out human transmission was found.

Last week, officials closed caves in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in New Jersey after WNS was discovered in the park. Superintendent John Donahue told the Newark Star-Ledger that he hoped the closing would contribute to "slowing the spread."

One caver told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month that he thought it possible that human behavior would have no effect on the disease; however, he said he would be willing to obey the rules because, "you can't sit back and do nothing."

Background: Discovering and beating white-nose disease

Bats with white-nose syndrome are seemingly unable to retain body fat and die of starvation. Not much is known about the condition, but researchers are collecting more information every day. One thing is certain, and that is the WNS situation is dire. Finding a solution is urgent, as bats contribute to the ecosystem by eating insects, spreading seeds and pollinating crops.

In addition to cave-closing, other methods are being tested to save the bats, such as heated boxes in caves. The heated boxes were particularly important in the winter; the bats' low body fat from the disease causes them to die of the cold during hibernation.

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