Our explorations often take us to some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders, including caves harboring intricate ecosystems. We’re talking about places like Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, and Lava Beds National Monument in California, just to name a few. Because of this, we must educate ourselves about our impact on those environments and the many threats that cave-dwelling creatures face. One devastating threat to bat populations is White Nose Syndrome.
In this guide, we’ll delve into this curious disease, its impact on bat populations, the impact it has on mankind, and how to explore caves responsibly. Let’s begin!
What Is White Nose Syndrome?
White Nose Syndrome is a severe fungal disease primarily affecting hibernating bat species. The fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans grows on bats’ skin, particularly their noses, wings, and ears during winter hibernation. The fungus has a fuzzy white appearance which disappears after the bats wake up. Nevertheless, it causes long-term skin damage on the bat and can wreak havoc on the entire bat colony.
If this is your first time hearing about White Nose Syndrome, you’re not alone. The disease is relatively new in the Western United States, with the first case in the region in 2016. Until then, White Nose Syndrome has primarily affected eastern bats since they hibernate in large groups. What remains to be seen is how White Nose Syndrome will affect bats in western states over time.
How White Nose Syndrome Impacts the Bat Population
Since its discovery in 2006, White Nose Syndrome has spread rapidly throughout bat colonies in North America, killing millions of bats. The fungus disrupts the bats’ hibernation patterns, causing them to wake more often. This leads to increased energy consumption and ultimately death due to starvation. They also develop the inability to regulate body temperature, wing damage, breathing disruptions, and dehydration.
Because White Nose Syndrome easily transfers between bats, it causes significant disruptions in ecosystems. Bats play a crucial role in controlling insect populations, which affects agriculture and biodiversity.
Can Humans Catch White Nose Syndrome?
Fortunately, White Nose Syndrome does not affect humans. The fungus appears to be specific to bats and does not pose a direct risk to human health. This is largely because Pseudogymnoascus destructans only grow between the temperatures of 41 and 68 degrees F, much lower than human body temperatures.
However, humans can inadvertently contribute to the spread of the disease through clothing, equipment, and other means. So, while humans can’t catch the disease, we can accidentally spread it to different ecosystems.
How to Explore Caves With Bats Responsibly
Bats can be found in many caves across America. If you’re eager to explore the beautiful cave systems, it’s crucial to remember that we all have a role in protecting these ecosystems. By following a few simple guidelines, you can walk away with amazing pictures and memories, and feel like you did your part to help minimize the risk of spreading White Nose Syndrome:
- Respect cave closures
- Do NOT wear or bring any gear that has been in other suspected White-Nose regions
- Obey all gear and clothing disinfectant protocols prior to entering caves
- Avoid disturbing bats in hibernation
- Stay on designated paths when visiting bat habitats
Pro Tip: Want to start exploring caves? Discover more about Why Do People Go Spelunking? The Wonders of Cave Exploring for Newbies.
How To Clean & Disinfect Your Gear Between Caves
Many parks and established visitor centers at bat caves will have a posted protocol for cleaning and disinfecting. Some have foot wash stations that all visitors must walk through. Others may question you on other cave visitations and what gear you wore there, including boots, clothing, backpacks, water bottles, cameras, etc. They may provide cleaning supplies and instructions, or they may even reject you from entering (it’s that serious).
Honestly, they probably won’t believe you if you claim to have cleaned and disinfected at home.
The US Forest Service has a strict method that serves for cleaning and disinfecting gear to kill White-Nose fungus spores. These include submersion in 122F water for 20 minutes, as well as non-submersion methods with Lysol, 409, or Chlorox for a handful of approved surface types. However:
Under no circumstances should clothing, footwear, or equipment that was used in a confirmed or suspect WNS-affected state or region be used in a WNS-unaffected state or region.US Forest Service, National White-Nose Syndrome Decontamination Protocol – Version 06.25.2012
If you are a spelunker who is exploring unregulated caves, you’d do well to know of the fungus in the region and follow these guidelines for cleaning all your gear thoroughly between explorations.
Is White Nose Syndrome Only in North America?
Technically, people have found the fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome in a dozen countries in Europe and Asia. However, the main difference is that those bats have adapted to the fungus and therefore aren’t affected by White Nose Syndrome.
Experts believe that cave visitors introduced the fungus to the eastern United States in 2007. Because North American bats couldn’t adapt to the destructive fungus, it affected them significantly. Since then, experts have discovered this fungus in 34 states and 7 Canadian provinces, with the first Western U.S. case in 2016.
Can Dogs Get This Fungus?
Thankfully for dogs and their owners, pets aren’t typically susceptible to White-Nose Syndrome, and there is no evidence to suggest that they can contract the disease. This syndrome is specific to bats and does not pose a risk to other animals.
Still, there’s a risk of transmitting the fungus from one area to another via pets. Because of this, we recommend steering clear of bat dwellings when you’re out with your dog.
How Can This Syndrome Be Cured?
Currently, there is no known cure for White Nose Syndrome in bats. Researchers are actively working to understand the disease better and develop strategies to manage its impact on bat populations. Because Pseudogymnoascus destructans most likely won’t go away, some approaches include introducing beneficial bacteria to bats’ habitats and developing treatments to mitigate the effects of the fungus.
Why Is White Nose Syndrome in Bats Harmful to Mankind?
So, if it’s not directly harmful to humans or pets, why care about White Nose Syndrome at all? Well, if you dislike bugs, love food, and are in favor of helping stroke victims, you should. Let us explain:
First, bats are essential insect predators. Insect-eating bats will consume any bug that’s active at night, including gnats, wasps, flies, mosquitoes, and many others. One bat can eat up to 1,000 insects in an hour, making them essential pest-control agents. They even allow farmers to use less pesticides on their crops, saving $3 billion annually on pest control costs.
Bats are also pollinators for agave, mango, cashews, and bananas. They disperse seeds throughout the rainforest. Without bats, we wouldn’t have certain foods and rainforests would struggle to regrow after clearings.
Finally, bats are the reason we’ve gained certain information about biology, echolocation, and even certain medicines. For example, vampire bat saliva can be useful in treating strokes. Sadly, almost 30 percent of bat species are either endangered or on the verge, and with their slow reproductive cycles, they’re not a species that can bounce back quickly.
Pro Tip: Go caving in one of these 9 Amazing Caves in Utah for Epic Underground Exploring.
Should You Be Worried About White Nose Syndrome When You Travel?
Thankfully, White Nose Syndrome poses minimal direct risk to humans and pets. You don’t have to worry about a loved one contracting the disease on your travels or a pet falling ill.
However, it’s crucial to be aware of the disease if you’re touring caves, like Mammoth Caves National Park or Wind Cave National Park. Responsible cave exploration practices, like cleaning gear and respecting bat habitats, can help minimize the potential spread of the disease.
By adopting responsible behavior and supporting efforts to understand and combat the disease, we can help protect the delicate balance of ecosystems and ensure that future generations can appreciate the wonders of the natural world.
Do you have any questions about White Nose Syndrome that we didn’t cover? Drop them in the comments below.
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