Since 2006, White Nose Syndrome has been decimating bat populations east of the Mississippi. Last year, the fungal disease was first found in Trigg County—in the southwest part of the state—and last month it was found in nearby Breckinridge County. Earlier this week, state biologists explored a cave in Meade County, looking to see if the disease has spread.
Charlie Logsdon and Brooke Hines slide aside a metal bar that blocks the entrance to Morgan Cave, at the Otter Creek Outdoor Recreational Area. We slip through the hole, and we’re in—standing in the middle of a surprisingly deep stream that’s running out of the cave’s mouth. Hines checks her watch and takes a temperature reading.
“And we take down who’s present, what time we’ve entered, if we see anything unusual at the entrance,” she says. “That gives us an idea of the next time we come into the cave how long it should take and how long we saw things the last time we were here, so we can get baseline data.”
Hines is a bat ecologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. Her job has always involved climbing through caves. But since White Nose Syndrome was found in Kentucky last year, she’s been spending even more time underground with bats.
“Here’s two more,” she points to two bats nestled in crevices on the cave’s ceiling. “That one on the right looks like a Northern, but I can’t tell for sure.”
None of these bats show the signs of White Nose Syndrome—a telltale white fuzzy fungus growing on the bat’s face. The disease is almost always fatal and it causes strange behavior—like waking up during hibernation and flying outside in the dead of winter to look for insects to eat.
There are caves all over Kentucky, and bats live in most of them. And when those bats are healthy, they help keep insect populations under control.
“They are a biological control. Nature’s pesticides, if you will,” Hines says. “They’re considered one of the keystone species which means when we start to see populations of them declining for whatever reason, it starts to make biologists and ecologists go, ‘okay, I think there’s something going on with the ecosystem overall.’”
Since White Nose Syndrome was discovered in Kentucky last winter, wildlife biologists have intensified their efforts. Hines says the department is trying several experimental ways to control the disease, but research has been slow to catch up with the exploding number of cases.
“We’re kind of of the mindset we’re willing to try anything at this point because it’s kind of viewed as a death sentence when you see White Nose on a bat,” she says. “The chance of them making it is fairly slim.”
Back inside the cave, we climb up and down two waterfalls, and see formations like drapery—rippling rock walls—and stalactites. Sometimes, the going is rough. We squeeze through tight openings, and slip over muddy rocks.
We see about 15 bats in all—not a huge amount. And there’s no sign of White Nose Syndrome in Morgan Cave. Sometimes bats can be infected and still show few visible signs of the disease. But Hines says if the fungus covers a bat’s face, it’s easy to see with the naked eye.
“If the fungus was visible, it really stands out against their face, because their face is dark,” she says. “When you see the fungus on them, it’s obvious, it’s really white.”
But for now, it's impossible to cure. Fungus is everywhere in caves, and trying to kill just one kind of it won't work. Because, like the bats, fungus is an essential part of the ecosystem.
“There’s hundreds of different fungi in caves,” Hines says. “You can’t go in and just use an anti-fungal in a cave, you’ll kill all of the naturally occurring fungus and then you’ll make things worse.”
Right now, the only known cases of White Nose Syndrome in Kentucky are in border counties, near caves in other states that have been infected. But for biologists, it’s a question of when, rather than if, the disease will move to other counties.