I hate that my first post in a month is about something so serious, but we got some very distressing news in Missouri today: our first confirmed cases of White Nose Syndrome in Missouri caves. I've mentioned this in past blogs about caves, and we were hoping that it wouldn't make it this far, but it seems we won't be so lucky.
If this is the first you've heard of White Nose Syndrome, here's a quick tutorial: WSN gets its name from the white fungus that appears on the nose and wings of infected bats. The infection makes it difficult for bats to hibernate, which means they will wake up in the winter when there aren't many bugs around. Not hibernating through winter, when there is no food, means that they deplete their fat reserves and eventually starve to death.
Now, I'm no spelunker, I'm just a cave tourist. I love show caves with electricity and no special equipment required and I love them so much that I'm getting married at Bridal Cave next year. Missouri has more than 6,500 caves, MANY of them open for public exploration and tours, but as White Nose Syndrome spreads, many caves with bat populations (including show caves) are in danger of being shut down. WNS is transmitted from bat to bat, but it is also suspected that humans can spread it by not properly cleaning all their clothing and equipment between caves. The only way we have to slow the spread of the fungus is to close the infected caves to nonessential humans, and for EVERY spelunker to properly clean all of their equipment after visiting a cave.
I know a lot of people are scared of bats, or at least creeped out by them, but bats are a really important part of our ecosystem. Their guano provides nutrients to other organisms living in caves, bats themselves are a food source for predators like hawks, and they eat more than half their weight in insects every night! WSN has already killed 7 million bats in the northeastern United States and Canada, and the estimated mortality rate for the little brown bat, a major bat population of Missouri, is 90%. NINETY PERCENT. People, this is devastating. You hate mosquitoes more than you are creeped out by bats, right? You want to know what you can do to help!
Lots of people have asked me that today, and I have an answer of sorts. There's really not much that us average, non-biologist people can do. However, the National Speleological Society has a White Nose Syndrome Rapid Response Fund. This is the best way you can save the bats. You can donate securely at this link and specify that you want your donation to go to WSN Rapid Response Fund. Please, share this link with your friends. Our only hope is that scientists can get a handle on this disease.