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Caves closed in effort to stop spread of deadly bat fungus

May 6, 2009 | 10:39 am

Little brown bat showing symptoms of white-nose syndrome.

Thousands of caves in national forests are being closed to visitors in an effort to halt the spread of white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungus which is decimating bat colonies and for which there is yet no cure.

An emergency closure order was issued last week by the U.S. Forest Service for caves in 20 Eastern states, reports the Associated Press. A second order covering the Forest Service's 13-state Southern region should be issued later this month. The sites will be closed for up to a year.

Researchers are uncertain if the fungus is being spread by bats or by cavers, so they hope the closures will give them time to determine how it is transmitted.

"We don't have the answers at this point," stated Dennis Krusac, U.S. Forest Service biologist. "If we have answers in a year or sooner, we can open them back up."

Spelunking groups are taking the news in stride.

"For a period of a year, most people can deal with that," Northeastern Cave Conservancy board member Peter Haberland said.

Little brown bat with fungus on muzzle."The recreation aspect is probably the least of our concerns," said Peter Youngbaer, of the National Speleological Society. "Education will be key, because many people who explore caves do not belong to organized groups."

Distinguished by white smudges on the muzzles, ears and wings, the fungus was discovered two years ago among hibernating bats in New York caves. The condition is decimating colonies, killing more than 90% of some, and there is concern it will spread nationwide.

Infected bats awaken from hibernation early because they have used up their reserves of body fat.  Leaving caves in search of insects that have not yet emerged, they die during their quest for food.

Though the fungus poses no threat to humans, the decline of bat populations may have a detrimental effect as the mammals help control the proliferation of mosquitoes and other insects that could transmit diseases.

--Kelly Burgess

Photos: Top: Little brown bat showing symptoms of white-nose syndrome. Credit: Greg Thompson / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Bottom: Little brown bat with fungus on muzzle. Credit: Al Hicks / New York State Department of Environmental Conservation