Bat Cave Conversion

It spread like wildfire. From its first documentation in New York in 2006 to the findings of the disease in a Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park cave last month, white-nose syndrome has swept through 19 states — leaving nearly 7 million hibernating bats dead in its wake.

“It’s killing bats at kind of an alarming rate,” says Cory Holliday, The Nature Conservancy Cave and Karst program director. “We have all kinds of stuff that could kill [white-nose syndrome], but we can’t apply it to the caves. They’re very sensitive and there are many microorganisms that live there.”

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Cory Holliday

Seeing no other option, The Nature Conservancy sprang into action a year and a half ago, working to raise $250,000 to create the world’s first artificial cave for hibernating bats, says Holliday. “It’s both a research project to see if it’ll work but also a mitigation strategy to save large numbers of bats,” he says.

Although the group has been fundraising since 2010, it is only a third of the way to its goal. “It’s pretty scary. We’re sort of in this situation where we can’t afford to do it, but none of us wanted to be there five years from now saying we didn’t try to combat white-nose syndrome because we didn’t have the money,” Holliday says. “We just don’t feel that we have time to wait. If we wait until we have the funds in hand, we may not have the bats left to make this project meaningful.”

The Nature Conservancy plans to break ground for the cave, which will be built next to an existing cave in Montgomery County, Tenn. near Clarksville, on June 15.

The cave will be entirely underground and will be designed to regulate its temperatures naturally, functioning like a normal cave except that it will be waterproof and sealed from the natural environment — apart from the entrances allowing bats and air to move in and out. The goal is to create a suitable environment for the bats, attract them to the cave to hibernate and, once they leave, clean the cave of traces of white-nose syndrome.

“We’re trying to do it a totally passive way, so the bats don’t know we’re there or manipulating their environment at all,” says Holliday. “The bats will definitely come in and have the fungus on them, but if we clean the cave while they’re out, any fungus that’s in there, they’ll be bringing with them. So the loads [of the disease] in the cave will be very low.”

The pattern in the Northeast is that they have an outbreak of white-nose syndrome; by the second year the mortality of bats increases and by the third year there is mortality of 90 percent, he says. If the artificial cave is kept at level one (or the level of mortality of year one of the disease),

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Plans for the world's first artificial cave for hibernating bats

Holliday believes they can keep infected bats from getting any worse.

“We’re hoping to get ahead of white-nose syndrome and save the bats,” he says. “If we are able to maintain a suitable habitat, get bats in there and keep the site clean — that’s a full-blown success. A partial success is that we build the thing and create a suitable environment. It’s never been done before, so there’s no guarantee that it’ll work or that we can do it.”

For more information on The Nature Conservancy or its efforts to build the first man-made bat cave, visit www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/tennessee/artificialbatcave.xml.

What is white-nose syndrome?

Named for the white fungus typically found on the faces and wings of infected bats, white-nose syndrome causes bats to awaken during hibernation and burn up their winter fat stores too early. Infected bats often emerge too soon from hibernation and usually freeze or starve to death. Scientists still aren’t sure where it started, where it will go next or how exactly it kills.

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