Tag Archives: Spelunking

Bats, Caves, and White-Nose Syndrome

Weird! Cool! Bats!

Weird! Cool! Bats! [Image: www.nature.org/]

Bats are awesome. They are a crucial part of insect control, pollination, and seed dispersal within their environments. They’re adorable, they help mitigate mosquito populations, and they have suffered huge, tragic population losses over the last 10 years because of a fungus that is incredibly spreadable, Pseudogeomyces destructans (Pd).

Over six million bats have died because of white-nose syndrome (WNS), which is caused when Pd is present in a cave where bats are hibernating. The hibernating bats are understandably awoken by the discomfort of having a fungus growing on their faces, but being awake prematurely is terribly costly in terms of energy. The bat is supposed to be sleeping the winter away because its food sources are limited or nonexistent, and it will likely starve or die in pursuit of food in weather and temperatures they aren’t built to withstand.

Poor bat.

I don’t think any of us would get a good night’s rest with that kind of thing going on. [Image: www.whitenosesyndrome.org/]

All this to say: While WNS is spread mostly between bat neighbors, humans can contribute to the problem if explorers delve into a cave where Pd spores are present, and then without proper precautions, wear the same gear to an uninfected location. That is, even though human transmission is neither the primary mode of transmission between bat populations, nor very common, precautionary measures are a critical aspect of protecting a very important species, especially when we haven’t entirely figured out how to combat it.

Snack!

Dinner on the fly. [Image: www.scienceinseconds.com/]

If you’re an avid spelunker or cave explorer, especially on the east coast of the U.S. and Canada, you’ve probably already read up on the appropriate decontamination protocol for your subterranean equipment. But for those of you who are new to the activity, it’s best to think of white-nose syndrome as an invasive species. One should endeavor to avoid contact with an area where the fungus has been documented, and certainly contact with bats, regardless of the confirmed presence of the fungus or not.

Here at Pocket Ranger®, we support the noble spirit of subterranean exploration! It’s a great way to stay active in the year’s hottest months and is a fun and enriching way of experiencing an inverse of our lives above ground. But with the deadly proliferation of white-nose syndrome in American bat populations, there are responsibilities that cave explorers must recognize. Hopefully we all keep them in mind as we spelunk our way out of the oppressive summer heat.

Everything You Need To Know About Spelunking

Image: www.lifeinthefastlane.ca/

Image: www.lifeinthefastlane.ca/

Spelunking. It isn’t the prettiest word in the dictionary, but don’t judge a book by its cover. Spelunking is the sport of exploring caves as a hobby or for scientific purposes.  Also known as caving, spelunking explores caves more so for fun rather than professionally. The people who do it professionally are called “cavers.”  The term spelunking comes from the Latin word spelaeum, which means “a cave.” Fun Fact: the scientific study of caves and the cave environment is speleology.

Spelunking’s difficulty can range from easy to very difficult, depending on the cave and knowledge of the spelunker (yes, that’s a real word). Challenges can also include the negotiation of pitches, squeezes and water in the cave.

Caving is said to be pioneered by Édouard-Alfred Martel, a Frenchman who came up with caving techniques using ropes and ladders. Special gear is required for spelunking. You wouldn’t think it, but overalls are great for spelunking since things can get pretty dirty down there. A helmet, headlamp and non-slip shoes are also advised. Climbing paraphernalia such as ropes, glow sticks, flashlights and GPS devices are good supplies to bring along for your journey.  Not saying this will happen, but just in case you do get lost or trapped, bring an abundance of food and water–just in case.

Experts also advise bringing a compass and a small first aid kit for any minor bruises you may get along the way. Other safety tips include constantly taking mental snapshots of where you’re coming from and where you’re going so you won’t get lost.

It is also recommended to go spelunking with experienced cavers since it’s easy to get lost or injured. It’s best to go with a small group of people, never alone. Many national and state parks such as Onondaga Cave State Park in Missouri and Kartchner Caverns State Park in Arizona offer spelunking.  A lot of parks don’t allow solo spelunking.

Dangers of cave touring include hypothermia, falling down, falling rocks and exhaustion.

For the advanced caver, vertical caving is sometimes practiced. Vertical caving is the means of using ropes to access portions of a cave due to large drops, oftentimes hundreds of feet. Vertical caves can be found in many southern states including Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

When you do visit your respective cave, be sure to keep the area as unpolluted as possible. Don’t write or leave any markings on the cave walls. Don’t touch the formations because most are very fragile and easily breakable.

There is a caving motto, Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time,” which is good to heed.

If you’re interested in spelunking, contact your local state or national park to see if they offer any cave services. Enjoy!