Places We Protect

Richard O. Rowlands Preserve


Heavy gray stone looms over the squared off entrance to a cave. A sign next to the cave entrance provides information about the bats who make a home inside.
Richard D. Rowlands Preserve Aitkin Cave, at TNC's Richard D. Rowlands Preserve, is closed to the public. © George C. Gress / TNC

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



Nearly 1,000 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.

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.

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.



Aitkin Cave remains closed until further notice to protect bat populations.


Mifflin County, PA

Map with marker: Hybrid road and topographic map with an orange pointer centered southeast of State College, PA.


Crustaceans, Insects, Arachnids and several bat species


45 acres

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A small bown bat clings to a rock face upside down.
Protecting Bats Aitkin Cave at Richard O. Rowland Preserve is one of the premier bat hibernacula in Pennsylvania. © George C. Gress / TNC

Protecting Bats at Aitkin Cave

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. WNS causes bats 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.

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 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.

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