A sign marks the entrance of a cave.
Richard O. Rowlands Preserve Aitkin Cave at TNC's Richard O. Rowlands Preserve is closed to the public. © The Nature Conservancy/George C. Gress

Places We Protect

Richard O. Rowlands Preserve

Pennsylvania

The Richard O. Rowlands Preserve at Aitkin Cave is a haven for bats.

Nearly one thousand species within the lower 48 states live exclusively in caves. Conserving these complex subterranean ecosystems represents important work, since they serve as a bridge between forested habitats located above ground and groundwater resources found below.

The Nature Conservancy added Aitkin Cave and the surrounding 45-acre Mifflin County property to its system of Pennsylvania nature preserves in 1992 thanks to the generosity of the late Richard O. Rowlands, a long-time conservationist and TNC supporter. It represents TNC’s first cave conservation acquisition and effort in Pennsylvania.

What’s At Stake: Rare and Threatened Cave Species

Caves harbor many species about which little is known, including a variety of crustaceans, insects and arachnids. At Aitkin Cave, rare cave isopods—tiny shrimp-like creatures—are found in the underground streams and pools at the bottom of the cave.

Historic records dating back to the 1930s also identify Aitkin Cave as one of the premier bat hibernacula in Pennsylvania. Today, the cave serves as a winter home for several species of bats, including little brown bats, northern long-eared bats, eastern pipistrelles, rare small-footed bats, big brown bats and the federally-endangered Indiana bat.

White-Nose Syndrome

In 2009, TNC and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) determined that bats in Aitkin Cave appeared to have white-nose syndrome (WNS), an invasive fungus that has devastated bat populations in the eastern United States and Canada. Specifically, WNS damages the wings of cave-dwelling bats, causing them to wake more frequently during winter hibernation and exhaust critical stores of fat required to survive the season. In response, TNC installed a cave gate and closed the Preserve to public visitation.

A small bat clings to a rock.
Bat A small bat clings to a rock at TNC's Richard O. Rowland Preserve in Pennsylvania. © The Nature Conservancy/George C. Gress

Monitoring and Protecting Bats

During the winter hibernation period, TNC works with PGC, Bucknell University and members of the local caving community to monitor bat populations in Aitkin Cave and and collect data to inform the progress and treatment of this disease. The partners normally conduct bat surveys about every two years. Even though there are places within the cave that cannot be searched because of limited access, if conducted consistently surveys can provide biologists and managers with valuable data on population trends and management needs. 

Bat numbers at Aitkin Cave were in the thousands during the 1990s and early 2000s, reaching a high of more than 4,000 in 2009. After that, populations experienced a steep decline due to WNS, dipping to only 39-49 bats between 2012 and 2016. 

In recent years, the data indicates a slight rebound, likely due to survivors who passed their more resistant genetics along to new generations. The cave is still closed to the public, and TNC continues to manage the surrounding property for conservation in order to protect as much as the life cycles for bats as possible.

Support Pennsylvania Nature

Help TNC and partners sustain a vibrant future for the people and wildlife sharing Pennsylvania’s diverse landscape.