The fatal bat disease white-nose syndrome has spread to Carter Caves State Resort Park.
Officials confirmed Thursday that bats collected from three caves inside the park were infected with the deadly fungal disease that has been spreading rapidly across the U.S. since its discovery in 2006, killing millions of the insect-eating mammals.
Nearly 40,000 endangered Indiana Bats hibernate annually in Carter Caves, representing half of those in Kentucky, park officials say.
Bats at Kingdom Come State Park Nature Preserve in Letcher County at Mammoth Cave National Park also tested positive for the disease in January. The disease has now spread across the commonwealth, having been found in 10 counties at 25 different sites.
Carter Caves Park Naturalist Coy Ainsley called the news terrible. “We knew it was coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier,” he said.
Infected bats were found inside three of the park’s caves — Bat, Saltpetre and Laurel Caves — by wildlife officials who completed a routine biannual count of hibernating bats, Ainsley said.
The park had closed these caves more than four years ago in an effort to stop the spread of the fungus. The popular Crawl-A-Thon event, which revolved around underground cave tours, was transformed into the Winter Adventure Weekend as a result. In 2011, Kentucky State Parks began requiring guests who take tours in two caves at Carter Caves that remained open, Cascade and X Cave, to disinfect their footwear and not to wear clothing that has been worn in other caves. Ainsley said those precautions would continue.
White-nose syndrome has no known cure and is believed to be spread by infected bats. It’s named for the appearance of a white fungus that grows on the muzzle and other body parts of hibernating bats. The disease disrupts their hibernation and leads to starvation or dehydration.
Ainsley said the park will be meeting with U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and Kentucky State Nature Preserve officials to discuss the way forward.
“We’re just going to go over stuff and see if there is any new research that has been done, see what other agencies are doing. We just want to make sure we’re up to snuff,” said Ainsley.
The infection of bats at Carter Caves does not appear to be severe at this point, but is expected to spread among the populations at the park with infection and mortality rates picking up each year, said Ainsley.
“It’s just a matter of time. The bats are intermingling with one another, it’s just going to become more widespread,” he said.
“Right now, it looks like just the first year (of infection). Normally from year to year it’s going to be worse. More and more are going to be affected. Around the third year, you see around 80 percent mortality,” he said.
As that begins to happen, Ainsley said, there will be more visible evidence of the disease. As the disease grows worse, bats begin to exhibit uncharacteristic behavior during cold winter months. They become irritated, wake from hibernation and move toward the entrances of caves or begin flying around foraging in the cold months and freeze to death.
“It’s sad because bats are a great thing to have around for us,” Ainsley said. “They help control those insects that not only bite us at night but affect our crops. They kept things in check. They are cool critters. You just want to go in there, grab them and take them to safety.”
Ainsley said the park will continue to educate the public about the disease and encourage donations to help researchers determine its cause and find a potential cure.
For more information on the disease, its spread and ongoing research, visit whitenosesyndrome.org.