Wednesday, November 2, 2011


A few weeks ago I was able to attend the National Cave and Karst Management Symposium with Jon in Midway, UT. My friend Cami put it together, and Jon helped with scheduling speakers. I was sick for a good part of it, but since the weather wasn't cooperating with my attempts to get out and do photography, I did end up hearing quite a few talks, my honey's included.

I was most interested in the talks that covered White Nose Syndrome. In case you haven't heard, bats have been dying off like mad all over the eastern United States, and the problem is spreading. The real kicker to me, however, is that the fungus that is overtaking the bats, Geomyces destructans, is the very same fungus that can be found in bats in Europe, but it isn't killing them. So what gives?

I listened to a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife give his take on things. The USGS is also involved, as are the National Parks and many other organizations. I heard about a lot of precautions and protocols being implemented to try to keep WNS at bay. Caves are closed all over the east, and cave closures and spreading westward ahead of the disease. While Mammoth Cave, a very public cave, has stayed open, it now has systems in place to inform visitors of WNS and to keep the public from possibly spreading it.

I also heard truly fascinating and enlightening talks from cavers' point of view. Tom Aley gave probably the most controversial and yet frank talk about WNS and how it relates to cavers and land owners. He spoke about how the agencies are all for closing down the caves to block access, hoping for that action to be a preventative measure, to slow the spread of the epidemic. However, it has been noted that having responsible visitation to caves is also a protection. Cavers who responsibly enter caves do not damage the fragile ecosystems or formations within the caves, and they they have the knowledge of cave systems to be able to detect and report differences in cave conditions or bat populations. Since knowledgeable and concerned cavers are voluntarily following the cave bans, many caves have become vulnerable to irresponsible parties entering and vandalizing the very systems that the bans are trying to protect.

It is also becoming increasingly difficult for scientists not directly involved in WNS to enter caves, but who knows what connections we might be missing out on because there are fewer skilled scientists able to add their information to the overall discussion of cave health and management?

Anyway, like I said, there have been all kinds of interesting ideas and thoughts thrown around about what to do about WNS, but the fact remains that no one still truly understands WHY this is happening... So how do you prevent or stop an epidemic that you don't understand? The answer is that you can't. For now people are trying to fight this in experimental ways or they expect to just let things run their course and then hope for the bat populations to bounce back.

In case you have gotten this far and are wondering why I care so much about bats, and why I think that you should too-- well, here are a couple of things-- bats pollinate some plants, they produce great fertilizer (guano), and they eat billions of bugs. They are an integral part of the food web. If they go the way of the dinosaurs, who knows what the full extent of the repercussions might be for us, and for the environment. We need bats.

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