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Deadly White-Nose Syndrome Impacts Bats at Mammoth Cave National Park

Deadly White-Nose Syndrome Impacts Bats at Mammoth Cave National Park

Northern long-eared bat with visible symptoms of white-nose syndrome.  White-nose syndrome, a disease deadly to bats and with no known cure, has created a "wildlife crisis" at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Some bat species in the park have declined as much as 80 percent compared to 2013 numbers.  Across the eastern United States and Canada, WNS has killed millions of bats since 2006.

“This is a wildlife crisis, unprecedented in our time,” said Mammoth Cave Superintendent Sarah Craighead.  “There is no known cure for white-nose syndrome.  With the help of wildlife veterinarians and public health officials, however, we have developed plans to minimize its spread by visitors traveling from the park.  We are also communicating with our visitors and partners, and are responding to changing situations as they occur.”

White-nose syndrome, a cold-loving fungus, grows on bats’ bare skin (muzzles, wings, and tails) during their winter hibernation, when their body temperatures and immune systems are reduced.  It causes bats to awake from hibernation and fly from the cave, exposing them to the elements and wasting energy and fluids vital to their survival.  Dead bats are found to be underweight and dehydrated.  White-nose syndrome is not known to affect humans.

Superintendent Craighead requested a site visit by the NPS Disease Outbreak Investigation Team, who traveled to the park in December 2014.  Made up of wildlife veterinarians, epidemiologists, and public health officials, the team reviewed park operations and discussed options with the park managers.

One issue the team examined was the increased potential for contact between bats and humans, both inside and outside the cave.  In addition to waking the bats, WNS also causes them to behave erratically, thereby increasing the potential for contact with humans.  In 2014 there were eleven reports of such contact in the park.

“Bats that have WNS lose their ability to maneuver quickly around objects, like people,” said Rick Toomey, director of the Mammoth Cave International Center for Science and Learning.

“Bats can carry diseases, such as rabies, and though transmission rates are very low, there is a risk that cannot be totally dismissed,” Toomey said.  “However, we consider the risk of a person contracting rabies from a bat at Mammoth Cave to be small.”

The Park urges visitors who come in physical contact with bats to consult with a trusted healthcare provider.

“There is an inherent risk in entering a wild place,” said Craighead.  “Park employees make sure visitors are aware of what they may encounter.  The visitors then decide if it is an acceptable personal risk.”

The park is continuing with scheduled cave tours, adapting times and routes in response to bat activity.  Bat research and bat monitoring are also ongoing.

Information was provided by Mammoth Cave National Park

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