A gate has been installed at the entrance of a bat cave in the Missouri Ozarks to protect hibernating gray and Indiana bats. Both bat species are federally endangered.
“This is an important cave because it’s the third largest gray bat hibernation site in the state of Missouri,” said Tony Elliott, bat biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Any type of disturbance while the bats are hibernating can be detrimental. The gate will help prevent that.”
The gate will keep people from entering the cave, while allowing bats to easily fly into and out of the entrance. When people enter caves or light fires near cave entrances, they can wake bats from hibernation or startle bats that are roosting. Hibernating bats may wake up too early, resulting in starvation, and roosting bats can panic and drop their babies.
In addition to threats from human disturbance, bat colonies are also critically at risk from white-nose syndrome, a devastating disease caused by a non-native fungus. The disease disrupts bats’ physiological functions, causing them to arouse too frequently from hibernation. Ultimately, most infected bats die of starvation.
The spread of the disease is primarily from bat-to-bat, but it’s likely that people can spread the fungus on their clothing or gear. Keeping people out of the cave may slow the spread of white-nose syndrome.
The fungus was first discovered in a New York bat colony in 2006; it has since spread to 19 states, including Missouri. “White-nose syndrome continues to progress westward across North America. There’s been up to 100% mortality in some sites,” said Elliott. “It has killed at least 5.5 million bats since 2007, mostly in the northeastern United States. The disease has the potential to decimate our bat population.”
This devastating loss of bats can have serious consequences for our nation’s ecosystems and our economy. All bats in North America eat insects, and are the only major predator of night-flying insects such as beetles, moths, and mosquitoes. Missouri’s population of gray bats alone eats over 540 tons of insects each year.
Bats are a natural source of pest control, benefitting crops, keeping forests healthy, preventing disease, and keeping people more comfortable. It is estimated that bats save U.S. farmers approximately $3 billion in pest control every year by preventing crop loss without the use of pesticides.
On the other end of the food chain, bats are a food source for owls, snakes, and other animals. Bat droppings provide nutrients for many forms of cave life.
“The Nature Conservancy is committed to protecting the lands and waters on which all life depends. By protecting the bat colonies in this cave, we are also protecting our crops, our economy, and our natural heritage,” said Todd Sampsell, the Conservancy’s State Director in Missouri.
The Nature Conservancy is the primary owner of the cave. The Missouri Department of Conservation started the gating process, assembled partners, secured federal funding, sponsored the gate design, and is providing personnel and equipment. The National Park Service facilitated access to the cave through their property. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources provided lodging for staff, facilitated access to the cave through their property, and assisted with staging for the gate installation. Bat Conservation International provided expertise on gray and Indiana bats and on cave gating. AmeriCorps built an access trail to the cave entrance. Karst Solutions installed the gate.
“Bats are just amazing creatures,” said Elliott. “They’re the only mammal that truly flies, and their wings are actually their hands. Bats use echolocation to navigate by emitting ultrasonic sounds, which are out of our range of hearing – but we’re probably glad we can’t hear them, because these are some of the loudest sounds in the world.”
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
Amy Hepler Welch
Operations and Marketing Coordinator
2800 S. Brentwood Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63144