Bats return to local cavern
Lincoln Caverns reports first sightings since white nose syndrome hit area
For the first time since a deadly fungus decimated the local bat population, a number of flying mammals have been observed hibernating in Lincoln Caverns.
About four or five bats have been observed consistently slumbering in the Huntingdon County caverns, said Jennifer Brumbaugh, a Lincoln Caverns coordinator.
“That might not seem like a whole lot, but it’s a lot more than zero,” she said.
At one time, 30 to 50 bats could be seen hibernating along the caverns’ tour path, Brumbaugh said.
Then white nose syndrome found its way to Huntingdon County.
White nose syndrome is a fungus that grows on bats’ noses and wings.
“It’s a fungi that attacks their skin membranes,” Brumbaugh said, explaining white nose is similar to athlete’s foot.
The fungus thrives in cool temperatures like those found in caves, making bats and their habitats especially susceptible to its growth.
“It’s very painful,” Brumbaugh said. “The bats are actually waking up every couple days to try to scratch and clean the fungus from their bodies.”
Those interruptions to hibernation could be deadly to the animals, which rely on fat reserves to keep them alive throughout the winter season.
The use of stored energy and physical damage caused by the fungus has proven deadly, Brumbaugh said.
“They’re so weak by end of winter that it’s hard for them to fly,” she said. “In Pennsylvania, I think they are looking at a 90 percent mortality across the state.”
In Lincoln Caverns, the bat population dropped to zero during the last few hibernation seasons, Brumbaugh said.
A similar drop-off was seen at Blair County’s Canoe Creek State Park, where tens of thousands of bats used to hibernate.
That number has dropped to lower than 100, said Heidi Mullendore, the park’s environmental education specialist.
But Mullendore, in a voice message, said the local bat population seems to be increasing slightly.
“There is hope,” she said. “It’s just that bats reproduce really slowly.”
The bats in Lincoln Caverns this hibernation season also are inspiring hope, but they still have to make it through the winter, Brumbaugh said.
“A couple of them have moved a few times, which means they might not be sleeping as soundly as they should be,” she said.
Steps are being taken to avoid disturbing the sleeping bats, Brumbaugh said, explaining that includes thought-out tour routes.
“We’re not trying to get up real close to them,” she said. “We don’t want to disturb them, certainly.”
Bats are territorial, meaning they will return to hibernate in the same locations each year.
Often, they can be found in the exact same spot on a cave wall from one year to the next, Brumbaugh said.
That can be dangerous if a cave is infected with the fungus.
When bats come out of hibernation and weather warms, the fungus on their skin typically dies, Brumbaugh said.
But inside the caves, where weather remains cool, white nose can persist, meaning the bats can become reinfected when they return to hibernate the following winter.
Bats flying from a contaminated cave also can spread the fungus on their bodies, Brumbaugh said.
“They might move from cave to cave a few times,” she said. “They can fly for miles and miles and miles in an evening.”
It’s not just bats that can spread the fungus. In fact, it is suspected that cavers who visited Europe carried the fungus to U.S. caves on unwashed equipment, Brumbaugh said.
Since then, the National Speleological Society has set up protocols for cavers to follow so that the further spread of white nose can be avoided.
Removing the fungus from caves has proven a difficult — if not impossible task, Brumbaugh said.
“There’s not really anything we can do as far as widespread fungicide,” she said. “There is no way to really clean the entire site.”
However, scientists have found that low-level ultraviolet light may have some effect on the fungus, according to several media organizations.
The spread of white nose could affect more than just the bat population, Brumbaugh said.
Bats provide an invaluable service in consuming large numbers of insects, she said.
Some of those insects are known to destroy crops and spread disease.
Without that service, it may be necessary to purchase billions of dollars of pesticides to combat the same bugs, Brumbaugh said.
“It’s important to know these things,” she said. “Bats are incredibly important.”
Brumbaugh said she remains hopeful that bats will make a comeback and that Lincoln Caverns’ bats will return next season.
“Certainly, if they make it through the winter, we should expect to see them again next year,” Brumbaugh said. “I really hope these guys show back up again this year.”
Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.
Lincoln Caverns 12th annual Batfest will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 10.
The daylong event will feature workshops suitable for all ages, as well as an update from the state Game Commission on the state’s bat species and white nose syndrome.
Wildlife rehabilitator Robyn Graboski also is slated to be in attendance with a big brown bat named Betsy.
Those interested in the event can visit www.lincoln caverns.com/special events or call 643-0268.