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White-nose syndrome has spread into visitor passageways of Mammoth Cave

red arrows point to bats suspected of having the disease
red arrows point to bats suspected of having the disease

White-nose syndrome, a fatal disease exclusive to bats, has spread to more bats in Mammoth Cave National Park. This disease was first detected about a year ago in remote areas of the cave system, but has now spread to toured visitor passageways.

Hiberating Brown Bat with White-Nose Syndrome
Pennsylvania Gaming Commission

Mammoth Cave scientist Rick Toomey said they have found about twenty-five dead tri-colored bats, also known as Eastern Pipistrelles, in the tour areas since the beginning of the year. "The bats did not all die at once or in a single place. They have simply been found dead individually in various places. This is a higher number than we have typically seen in the past, before white-nose syndrome. We have submitted eight of these dead bats for testing. One has come back as having WNS. We are waiting for the results on the other seven from the National Park Service's Wildlife Health Branch. However, we are fairly sure that at least some of those seven will also come back as having the disease," said Toomy. "We have also seen about 50 live tricolored bats in the area of the Historic Entrance that seem to be behaving in an unusual manner," he said. "They have been roosting closer to the cave entrance than we have seen them in previous years. This puts them in significantly colder areas than they typically roost in. This is one type of WNS-related behavior change that they have seen in states that have had the disease for several years, so it is not surprising that we are beginning to see it here. We are continuing to monitor disease progress and effects."

This disease was first discovered in New York around 2006 and has since claimed the lives of over seven million cave-dwelling bats throughout the eastern part of North America. As the disease progressively gets worse, bats will become more active during months when they should be hibernating. “We have observed some increase in bat activity, which may be due to the illness,” park Superintendent Sarah Craighead said in a recent press release. Although the disease does not spread to humans, park rangers request that visitors do not try to make contact with any of the wildlife. “As with all our wildlife, we caution visitors not to approach animals, including bats. If contact should occur, please notify a ranger.”

Richard Toomy has stated that measures have been taken to prevent the disease from spreading. To prevent the fungus from leaving the park, “every visitor walks over a bio-control mat after their tour that will hopefully clean their shoes off and keep them from potentially moving those fungal spores to someplace else.”