one, they slide a dozen feet down the dirt embankment on the
inside and cautiously stand as their eyes adjust to the yellowish
light cast by their headlamps. The experienced cavers who
have accompanied them have cautioned: Don’t let your helmet
knock the stone overhead. Don’t touch the walls or stumble
against them. Some of the partially detached stone slabs—as
large as a dining room table—that surround the visitors appear
to be hanging from the walls and ceilings at crazy angles.
This was an active mine a century ago, and manmade tunnels
and underground rooms are far less stable than those carved
by nature. No one wants to find out what it would take to
make one of the overhanging slabs break free.
is in Schoharie County, but it looks like another planet,
with walls and ceilings of gunmetal-colored rock glimmering
with a metallic sheen. The reflective appearance of the stone
comes from bacteria that grow on the rock surfaces in this
damp, cool underworld and pick up the headlamp light with
a silver, gold or blue color, depending on which variety they
places, the ceiling buckles so low that you have to hunch
your shoulders and drop your head. Underfoot, it looks like
the floor has fallen through. Broken slabs of stone lie where
they dropped, creating little crevasses that collect water
and are, on this late winter’s day, patched over with dirty
ice. Upside-down icicles grow from the rock floor of the cave,
their pointed ends reaching toward the ceiling. They form
when the constant drip from above begins to freeze, and repeated
drops hitting the same spot build up into slender columns
of ice two and three feet high.
cave is one of many where several of the nine bat species
found in New York state spend the winter, and bats are what
these explorers are seeking. The kind of winter sleep that
bats normally experience is often described as “hibernation,”
but it is not the same deep, unresponsive state that turtles
and frogs enter into in the fall, and which lasts unbroken
until spring. When bats “hibernate,” they go for long stretches
without moving, but they can be awakened and they will briefly
move around and even open their wings if disturbed.
normal winter, the bats would quickly go back to sleep if
disturbed. They would continue to live off of stored body
fat that they had packed on in the fall from their diet of
insects. And in a normal winter, without the daily demands
on their energy that flying requires, the bats would survive
until spring on that stored fat, until they left the cave
and the insects returned.
past few years in New York have not been normal for bats.
Hundreds of thousands of them have died in the throes of a
mysterious illness that has drained the fat from their bodies
in midwinter and has driven them from their normal winter
sleep into the kind of activity and hunger that they should
not experience until April.
and famished, the bats have left their snug caves and flown
outside into an upstate winter. And there in the open they
have plummeted to the ground and died, often leaving pathetic
trails behind them in the snow as they struggled to crawl
away. The ravens and crows have had rich pickings at the mouths
of these caves. Often, biologists find only a few dark flecks
in the snow to mark where the bats died.
of the dead bats have had one common symptom: A fungus has
grown over their face, obscuring their features with an off-white
fuzz, like the cover of a used tennis ball. And so scientists
have given the bat deaths the name “White-Nose Syndrome.”
Region is the epicenter for this disease, which has so far
stymied researchers in several countries as they work overtime
to find a way to stop it. White-Nose Syndrome started in Schoharie
County and has since spread to eight other states. Although
scientists know the broad general scientific group that the
fungus belongs to, no one has yet been able to identify the
exact species, says Jeremy Coleman, a biologist with the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service in Cortland who is coordinating
the national response.
the mammal specialist for the state Department of Environmental
Conservation’s Endangered Species Unit, fears that some bat
species risk dying off altogether. White-Nose Syndrome has
hit some species particularly hard—one is the Little Brown
Bat, best known to homeowners as the bat most likely to blunder
inside on a summer night—and some hardly or not at all, including
the Big Brown Bat and some species that migrate to Southern
states in the winter instead of hibernating.
is not only bad news for the bats. Bats are often reviled
and misunderstood, but they are actually very beneficial animals
that consume enormous numbers of insects. Humans who understand
bats are justifiably both frightened and saddened at the ferocity
with which White-Nose Syndrome has devastated New York’s bat
rate it’s spreading, at the rate it’s killing the bats,” Hicks
says, “we will potentially lose species within a few years.”
spends a lot of time in caves, surveying the bat population,
and he has gotten to know many of the people in the Capital
Region who go caving as a hobby. This day’s expedition starts
with a hurried conference with three cavers in the parking
lot of a convenience store to discuss strategy and location.
The cavers include Joe Armstrong, who is a housepainter by
day, and Eliah Kagan and Kevin Pieluszczak, both students
at Syracuse University and members of the college outing club.
trying to get the local caving community involved in these
surveys, because there’s a lot of them, and not a lot of us,”
Hicks explains as the group sets out again in separate trucks.
“And Joe knows his bats very well. The caving community has
been very good; they’ve helped us since 1980, when we first
started doing this. We’ve never done any big site without
cavers, for their part, are trying to keep curiosity seekers
out of the caves, so as to avoid disturbing the bats, and
also to keep people who know nothing about caving from going
into these old mines and natural caverns. In keeping with
their request, the caves that Hicks will go into this day
will not be identified.
to this group, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon
ask even experienced cavers to curtail their underground explorations.
White-Nose Syndrome is believed to spread from bat to bat
in infected caves, but it’s also been found in caves long
distances apart, prompting federal wildlife authorities to
suspect that humans may play a role in the transmission, even
though humans do not catch the disease.
that White-Nose Syndrome may be transmitted by humans inadvertently
carrying White-Nose Syndrome from cave to cave where bats
hibernate,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Marvin Moriarity
said in a release issued on March 26.
is asking cavers to use only clothing and gear that has never
been in affected states, and to avoid caves in the winter
altogether. But in the end, Fish and Wildlife can only appeal
to the sense of responsibility that prevails in the caving
community—careless cavers don’t have long careers—because
there are hundreds of caves in the Northeast, and it would
be impossible to police them or limit access to them.
to cavers comes as the rapid die-off of bats is shocking researchers.
two years, mortality rates have ranged anywhere from 80 to
90 to 97 percent,” Hicks says. Caves in the Capital Region
that once would have held thousands of hibernating bats now
have only a handful. As of this writing, Hicks was still tallying
the winter bat survey, but said that “it’s clear that numbers
are continuing to decline throughout the state. Some places
are declining dramatically.”
in Ulster County that had 10,000 hibernating bats two years
ago contained slightly more than 100 bats this winter, Hicks
to the visible fungus, most of the dead and dying bats are
emaciated. One question researchers are trying to answer now
is whether the bats are entering hibernation at the proper
weight, or if for some reason they aren’t able to prepare
properly for hibernation in the fall.
hope that the bats that did not die last year in affected
caves might have some natural genetic immunity to the disease
is proving false, says Jeremy Coleman at U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Coleman says, it appears that “the survivors from last year
were just lucky.” And for many of those initial survivors,
their luck ran out this winter.
the cave, Hicks or ganizes the group into a line that searches
the cave in a circular pattern. The interior of the cave is
like an enormous open room with passages leading off in several
directions. Bats sometimes hang from rock faces or ceilings
in plain sight, but they also sometimes crawl into tiny cracks.
As the group moves around, a few bats can be seen.
inspects those that he can see clearly without disturbing;
so far, all appear to be healthy. Just a little more than
two years ago, a day like this would have been an enjoyable
trip in the field, and Hicks might have seen hundreds or even
thousands of bats in a cave, instead of a few dozen.
2007, a man exploring a cave in the hilltowns of western Albany
County noticed bats in the cave clustered near the entrance.
When the DEC heard about the unusual sighting—bats normally
would be deep in the caves at that time of year—the agency
asked another caver to verify the report. Around the same
time, Hicks and the State Health Department started hearing
odd reports of bats flying around in the winter. Then in March,
some DEC biologists conducting a bat survey at a cave in Albany
County made a hideous discovery.
called me from the site and said, ‘There’s thousands of dead
bats,’ ” Hicks recalls. He examined the photographs the biologists
brought back, and started sending them to bat researchers
around the country.
absolutely clear to me that this was something new,” Hicks
says. “Nobody had ever seen anything like it before.”
February 2008, a caver contacted Hicks to show him some photographs
of bats he had taken in a cave in Schoharie County in January
2006. Because of the close connection between cavers and bat
biologists, word of the strange bat disease was circulating
in the caving community, and the man had reviewed his earlier
photographs. One of the bats in his photos had the fungus,
something the man had not recognized at the time. Hicks now
had a confirmed sighting dating to 2006, and confirmation
of the disease in separate counties, at locations many miles
on White-Nose Syndrome suggests that it is an introduced pathogen,
possibly brought into a cave on the boot of a traveler from
another part of the world. Introduced pathogens have gotten
a lot of attention in recent years, because as international
air travel and cargo shipping have reached into ever more
remote parts of the globe, the potential for a new disease
to make the return trip has increased.
has never been observed in North America,” Hicks says. “We
don’t know what it is. It seems very clear that it is a pathogen,
and the only suspect is the fungus.”
the only reason it’s affecting bats is because bats hibernate,
so in that sense it’s not a ‘disease’ in the normal sense
of the world,” he adds. “All it has to do is disrupt their
hibernating cycles in some way, and they use up their fat
reserves and die. It’s taken these species millions of years
to evolve this habit of eating insects in the fall, and you
throw something in the mix and they’ll be in trouble—and they’re
in big trouble.”
researchers, including Ward Stone, the state wildlife pathologist,
think that global warming may play a role in White-Nose Syndrome.
As Stone notes, climate change has been connected to other
animal deaths in New York. West Nile Virus, a mosquito-born
disease of Africa that can be fatal to humans and birds, is
one recent example: The first time it was found in North America
was in New York City, a decade ago. Stone was instrumental
in helping to identify West Nile in dead birds.
of 2006 and 2007 were unusually dry in New York, Stone notes,
and many of the insects that bats eat require ample water
during their development. Whether the fungus that causes White-nose
Syndrome was already present and just needed the right combination
of factors to overwhelm the bats, or whether it was introduced,
it may be that the bats—already feeling the effects of an
inadequate food supply—were more susceptible than they might
normally have been.
no reason to think that bats haven’t faced fungal infections
before in hundreds of thousands of years, even millions of
years,” Stone says. “So much movement of humans and goods
could help a fungus move, and to places it hasn’t been before.”
lab at the Five Rivers Wildlife Resources Center in Delmar,
Stone is supervising the preparation of cultures of the fungus
in an effort to learn more about the conditions under which
it grows. Two Cobleskill College student interns, Sami Kadhim
and Joseph Hoyt, have been working with Stone on the culturing
project, and the list of what the fungus grows on seems endless:
wood, lichens, grass clippings, dead spiders, sheep’s blood,
mushrooms, bird seed, banana slices, corn husks. It is a cold-loving
fungus that grows well in temperatures ranging from the 40s
to the 50s—about the same as a refrigerator—and “it will grow
on just about anything,” Stone says.
thing it did not grow on is Stewart’s bread—we tried wheat,
we tried white,” Stone says. That’s because many commercially
produced breads contain a synthetic additive to inhibit mold.
Additional tests conducted in the pathology lab indicate that
some common household cleaners, including Lysol, and a disinfectant
used in hospitals kill the fungus.
has also discovered that a bacterium known as “Pseudomonas
Fluorescens” at least inhibits the growth of the fungus. One
of the students cultured the fairly common bacterium from
the fur of a dead Big Brown Bat found hanging on a building
on downtown Albany’s Broadway this winter.
findings—agents that kill the fungus; bacteria that interrupt
its growth—provide useful information in the all-out effort
to control White-Nose Syndrome, Stone says, but they do not
necessarily mean that researchers are going to find a cure
anytime soon. Still, he is optimistic about the progress that
has been made so far, and impressed by the cooperative effort
among researchers from different states and even different
hundreds of people now involved in doing the research,” Stone
says. “We’re rapidly gaining ground on this. We’ve got a lot
at stake, but the bats have more.”
that something already naturally present in the environment
such as the bacterium cultured in Stone’s research is of great
interest, Hicks says. If a treatment could ever be developed,
it might be applied to the bats by misting the entrances of
certain caves in the fall.
I think that’s one of the best chances we have that we find
something out there in the environment that kills this fungus,”
Hicks says. “I think that will have to be the avenue we have
to take if we’re going to beat this: Find something out there
that can out-compete the fungus.”
cave in Schoharie County, there is ample evidence of coming
and going. The remnants of a campfire can be seen in one secluded
corner, where people evidently sat and talked and drank. A
small songbird, the Eastern Phoebe, likes to nest in caves,
just near the entrances; it attaches its cup-shaped nest of
mud and plant fibers to a small niche in the wall, and several
Phoebe’s nests can be seen in this cave. They are vacant in
the late winter, but they evoke the springtime image of parent
birds coming and going, swooping in and out of the caves and
possibly helping to spread the fungus.
finds one very sick bat in this cave; it is a Tri-Colored
Bat, and its face is covered with fungus. Hicks removes the
bat, kills it instantly by breaking its neck, and then seals
it in a bag.
about as sick as he could get,” Hicks says, examining the
and the cavers soon head out of the old limestone mine and
travel a short distance to another cave in Schoharie County.
The entrance here is wide enough to walk into, and a tunnel
with a stream running through it disappears down into the
darkness. A few minutes into the tunnel, the water is suddenly
knee deep with runoff from recent heavy rains, and wading
through this forceful stream is an unnerving sensation when
the only way out is the receding square of daylight now far
behind the group.
farther down the tunnel, the walls narrow and the ceiling
becomes much lower, so that everyone has to duck their heads
and hunch over for next 100 feet. Hicks has been in much tighter
spaces in caves; he recalls one time when he had to squeeze
through an hourglass-shaped opening in a cave so narrow in
the middle that he felt the rock sides pressing on his ribs.
the tunnel opens up into a space like an underground church,
with soaring ceilings and rounded, curved walls. Bats can
be seen clinging here and there on the walls and the ceiling,
and one of them—in a barely accessible portion of the wall
above a rock shelf—looks like it has the fungus. Hicks climbs
the shelf, balances carefully on the narrow space as the cavers
spot him, and removes the bat from the wall. The bat slowly
wakes up and stretches its wings. A closer examination reveals
that this bat is not sick—at least, not visibly so—it’s simply
got some dirt on its fur that at first looked like the powdery
smudge of fungus.
morning that hasn’t had a lot of good news, this is one small
bright spot. Hicks gently replaces the barely awake bat back
on its roosting spot, and heads back into the tunnel, back