Taking a deep breath of the crisp winter air, I secured my helmet and switched on my headlamp. Slowly I made my way downslope, following a single-file line of biologists. The sunlight dimmed behind me until my field of vision narrowed to the small spec of light from my headlamp. There was a noticeable change in the air. It’s not as cold down here! Above me are tiny sleeping bats tucked away for the winter in the corners of walls and in high crevices.
For some of you, that may have sent a shiver down your spine. As a first timer, the only chills I got were from the snowy hike up to the cave entrance. The biologists I trailed behind are the predecessors of a resolute crew that has been surveying Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis) at abandoned mines and caves in New York every other winter since the early 1980s.
In addition to Indiana bats, five other bat species have repurposed abandoned mines like this one in New York State as their winter sleeping quarters. Being able to see these harmless flying mammals nestled together in furry clusters is unforgettable, and an experience I may only have once.
“This really shouldn’t take long,” remarked one of the biologists (referring to the survey). Good, I thought, we don’t want to disturb the bats anyway. But then it came to me. That means that there won’t be many bats to count. How could that be if this mine was at one time the largest known site in New York for Indiana bats?
Over 24,000 Indiana bats once filled the walls and ceiling of this hibernaculum, according to Carl Herzog, who is the New York State biologist in charge of bat conservation and management. As of this year, roughly half of that is the total count for the entire state. That’s because something changed in the winter of 2006-2007. A discovery in a cave near Albany, New York would haunt both bats and biologists ever since: white-nose syndrome (WNS).
Before I go too far into the gloomy details of how this fungal disease has caused [what is believed to be] the most dramatic decline of North American wildlife in over 100 years, here’s some positive news: we’re there for bats. Since well before the disease’s inception, biologists and researchers have been monitoring bats in New York. “Without these efforts, as well as those done by a handful of academic researchers who concentrated on bat work in the Northeast, we would not have quickly recognized WNS for the disaster that it is,” explains Carl, adding that “ we would literally be years behind where we are in terms of knowledge and understanding.”
Being down in this dark and challenging work environment comes with risks for both biologists and the bats. There is no uniformity to the terrain. Ice stalagmites and loose rocks protrude from the ground, awaiting your unfortunate missed step. You have to be ready to get dirty. That also means meticulous decontamination of every piece of gear is a must; from helmets and headlamps, to cameras and boots. There is no taking a chance on transporting this fungal disease from one hole in the ground to another.
All this for a small glimpse into understanding how we can help bats. And they need our help now more than ever. As of last week, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was found in six Texas counties, making it the 33rd state in the U.S. with the fungus or the disease. In New York, affected bat species have faced up to 99% decline in some hibernacula. Without these surveys, we would have no clue. The data from this year could tell a lot about the future of Indiana bats in New York.
“White nose syndrome has been such an intense learning experience that the lessons have been many,” says Herzog. Whether you like bats or not, there is so much more we can learn about them. In the end, bats help us, be it through bat-inspired aircraft, natural pest control, or better food crop yields.
A note on restrictions: It is to your benefit and the bats’ that you do not enter restricted cave and mines sites, and do not ignore restricted area signs. Disturbing a hibernating bat can cause it to burn up vital fat reserves and possibly not survive the winter. Surveys are coordinated with state, federal and non-government partners to reduce disturbance of hibernating bats, and precautions are taken to minimize risk of transporting white-nose syndrome out of this disease-contaminated site. For more information on cave access, please see the following.