Earth Notes: Safeguarding Southwestern Bats

Nov 28, 2012

As winter approaches, some species of bats settle in to hibernate in caves. Lack of food and dropping temperatures drive them inside, where “carpets” of bats congregate on cave ceilings.

Braided Cave
Credit National Park Service

But the cool, humid conditions of underground caverns can also nurture a fast-spreading fungal pathogen that’s deadly to bats.

The fungus causes white-nose syndrome, named for the fuzzy white appearance on bats’ faces. Once infected, the animals awake unnaturally from hibernation, burn up fat reserves, and starve before spring.

White-nose was discovered in the eastern U.S. only six years ago. Since then, it has progressed as far west as Missouri and has killed more than five million bats here and in Canada.

Concerned about further westward spread, managers at El Malpais National Monument in northwest New Mexico wanted to learn more. Researchers are measuring temperature and humidity in ten lava caves where bats hibernate. They’re also analyzing DNA samples from soil, bat guano, and some bats.

Luckily, they’ve not found any sick animals. But one of the biologists, Debbie Buecher thinks it’s a question of when, not if, white-nose syndrome will arrive in the West.

Working with University of New Mexico researcher Diana Northrup, she hopes their research will help El Malpais managers better predict which bats, and which caves, are most vulnerable. As a precaution, all the park’s caves are closed to spelunkers. By safeguarding winter homes, park managers hope to retain bats as a long-lasting part of park summers.