Many find it a perfect way to explore nature and beat the heat at the same time. But as thousands of cavers and tourists head underground, scientists are concerned about a deadly threat to cave dwelling bats.
Just south of Bend and nestled into the side of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, the Lava River Cave stretches nearly a mile under the Earth’s surface. And even though it’s 80 degrees outside, walk just a few yards past the cave’s entrance and your breath suddenly condenses on the cool underground air.
But cold dark caves make wonderful wintertime hibernation spots for many species of bats.
In the last five years, however, scientists have witnessed an alarming drop in some bat populations.
White Nose Syndrome as it’s called is thought to be caused by fungus. It was first discovered in a popular tourist cave in New York State. Since then the fungus has killed moe than a million bats.
The fungus has turned up as far west as Oklahoma. And while there haven’t been any reported cases in Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service is taking precautions to try and keep the disease at bay.
During the summer months, Lava River Cave gets about 5000 visitors each week. That’s why outside the cave’s entrance volunteers and Forest Service staff hand out questionnaires asking if visitors have ever been inside a cave.
The staff here want to find out if they’re bringing gear that might be carrying the fungus. One visitor reads the survey aloud to his group.
“Are you wearing clothing, boots, or carrying camera, fanny pack, headlight etc. that you used in that cave or mine?”
There’s a lot scientists still don’t know about White Nose Syndrome. But researchers believe that while the fungus appears to primarily be passed on from bat to bat, people can also carry the spores on their clothes, boots and equipment.
Mona Derby is an interpretive biologist with Deschutes National Forest. “Overall people are really receptive. Even at the beginning when you say “can you fill out this form”? And they’re really excited to go in the cave. And they just want to go, go, go. And you know grandma and grandpa brought their grandkids and they’re really excited. After you let them know why, it surprises them.”
Even the fact that bats live in these caves might be surprising to some. For the most part, bats will stay out of sight until the sun goes down.
Only then will they come out to forage on their favorite food, insects. Lots and lots of them. Bats can consume up to 600 insects in an hour, which is why White Nose Syndrome has scientists worried, says scientist Julie York. “They’re nature’s pest control.”
(This was first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting.)