Caves, abandoned mines closed to prevent spreading bat fungus

Published 5:00 pm Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The thought of bats may conjure up images of haunted mansions and eerie caves, but in reality these furry flying creatures are vitally important to the surrounding ecosystem, and they are dying at an alarming rate.

More than 1 million bats have died of white-nose syndrome, a fungus that spreads rapidly through caves, often on hikers’ shoes, according to a USDA Forest Service press release.

As a result of the fungus’ uncontrolled spreading, the Forest Service Southern Region is renewing its closure order on all caves and abandoned mines on national forests in the Southern region, including Anderson cave in Shelby County.

“Losing huge numbers of bats could affect the remaining bats’ ability to survive and adapt in the future through loss of genetic variation,” said Dagmar Thurmond, USDA forest biologist.

The loss of bats may not seem like a big deal to most people, but Thurmond explains just how important they are to our ecosystem.

“Insect-eating bats are voracious predators of insects such as beetles, moths, aquatic flies and mosquitoes,” Thurmond said. “The number of moths and beetles that damage our forests and crops could increase as we lose the bats that eat them.”

However, Thurmond also said that farmers and forest-dwellers aren’t the only ones bats help.

“Backyard gardeners may see increases in moth caterpillars or beetles preying on their gardens and may need to use pesticides or handpick pests from their plants,” she said.

White-nose syndrome has other characteristic symptoms besides white muzzles. It can cause the bats to lose body fat they’ll need to survive their hibernation until spring. It also causes strange behavior in bats, including moving to cold parts of the cave and flying during the day.

The USDA Forest Service hopes that closing all affected caves from Massachusetts to Mississippi will slow the spread of the fungus, which is believed to spread via hikers’ clothing and shoes.

The mass cave closures have affected the caving industry economically.

Brian Krebs, chairman of the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, said his organization has already been heavily impacted by the cave closures. The SCC is mainly run by donations from cavers.

“If they’re unable to go caving in certain caves, they tend to jump ship and move on to their next favorite hobby,” Krebs said.

White-nose syndrome has not been found to cause harm to humans, and despite the mass closures, no cure or end to the spread of the fungus is in sight.

“No disease treatment or disease eradication scenario has been developed yet,” Thurmond said.