Greg Turner of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Aura Stauffer of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources contacted me and asked me to get a group of cavers together to go into Barton Cave in Fayette County during a bat survey, the only time the cave would potentially be open to us prior to a decision (pending) that is to be made on reopening the cave to cavers during the summer months.
The main purpose of our going was to get an opinion and to assess a collapse that had occurred just beyond the mail slot, that had effectively blocked off the Pittsburgh Passage.
The trip had originally been scheduled for Monday of this week, but a crucial piece of equipment was delayed in shipping, so it the trip had changed to Wednesday.
Mike Kern, Dennis Melko, Lisa Hall, Chuck Hilpert and Aron Schmid were the cavers able to join us on that day. Greg, who came in from Harrisburg, was joined by Colleen Patterson of the PGC, driving from Williamsburg. Aura drove in from Harrisburg with Charlie Eichelberger of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Rounding out the group was Dr. DeeAnn Reeder, a faculty member from Bucknell University, Lewistown, who is doing groundbreaking research on White Nose Syndrome. She was accompanied by two students, Chelsey (Das Boot) Musante and Megan Vodzak and an assistant from Bucknell whose name I did not catch. Little did we know that we were going to be witnessing an incredible field experience.
The cavers go there about a half hour early. We planned to do a surface walk above known parts of the cave to see if there were any signs of the surface indicating why there had been a collapse in the cave. Everyone was still getting ready so I headed down early and checked it out. I was just finishing it up when the cavers came down the hill, followed by the biologists.
The Bucknell crew spread a tarp out in front of the entrance and a ton of equipment, creating a mini-lab right outside. We decided it had been a good thing for the two-day delay because Monday had been a miserable rainy day.
At some point over the winter Greg and assistants had erected netting inside the gate to prevent infected bats from escaping and from entering the cave. As we had described in a previous newsletter, Greg, DeeAnn, Aura and crew had glued mini data loggers to the backs of bats in an effort to track their movements, body temperature and other data crucial to helping our understanding of how White Nose Syndrome impacts the bats.
The biology crew brought out one bat at a time for the study. This was tedious for us, but fascinating as well, and we all came away with a greater appreciation for their work, and how we could see, first-hand, the care and thought that they are putting into learning about Geomyces destructans, the fungus that is killing the bats.
Unfortunately, the bats with the dataloggers were to be dissected for study. As we saw, however, there was no question the bats were fatally ill and going to die anyway. Each part of the bat was carefully labeled and measured, and a great number of statistics taken right there in the field. I won’t pretend that I understood much at all, since I’m no scientist. But when Dr. Reeder noted that one bat in particular had only one-third of one vial of blood, when a normal bat’s blood supply should fill two vials, evidence that dehydration is a major complication of the disease. That dehydration causes not only loss of water, but also of the necessary nutrients to sustain life.
The biologists all noted that the mortality levels they have seen in Pennsylvania are more than 90 percent, and evidence of that was apparent when the cavers finally got into the cave.
I had been feeling horrible for a few days with what was a severe sinus infection, but I had a special mission for the day, which I took care of. I truly wanted to accompany Dennis, Lisa, Colleen and the Bucknell students to the mail slot, but I’m glad I did not, as I later drove myself to the emergency room to get some drugs to alleviate my suffering.
The crew was able to dig through the first plug, but encountered a second blockage shortly thereafter, between the mail slot and the second plug. Dennis was uncertain whether it was possible to clear the passage at all, but Greg seemed more optimistic. The biologists had been very anxious to attempt to gain access to the Pittsburgh Passage, as that is the area of the cave where most of the bats had historically hibernated. DeeAnn had recovered only a small number of the dataloggers, and it was hoped that additional bats with dataloggers would be found beyond the collapse. However, after several hours of work in miserable conditions, the crew had to call it a day with only the first plug removed. Dennis took the accompanying photos as well as a video to try to help us understand what is going on in the cave.
Aura was anxious for us to determine the cause in order to figure out whether that section of cave will be safe, and what to do for management purposes. Since the cave is infected, and, in spite of all efforts to safeguard the bats, it is likely that it will be opened for visitation in summer. More on that later.
We thank the biologists for allowing us to not only help with the blockage on the cave, but also for allowing us the fascinating opportunity for us to watch them at work.
By Kim Metzgar