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Bats return to Lincoln Caverns after disease nearly wiped out state's species

Ahead of Batfest, the Lincoln Caverns team found about four bats hibernating in the caves this winter after nearly all of Pennsylvania's bats have died off. (Photo: Lincoln Caverns)

HUNTINGDON -- Ahead of Batfest, the Lincoln Caverns team found about four bats hibernating in the caves this winter after nearly all of Pennsylvania's bats have died off.

"They're only about the size of your thumb," Lincoln Caverns coordinator Jennifer Brumbaugh said. "That's all the bigger their bodies are so they kind of slide into nooks and crannies on the cave walls."

Many people may not realize how the small and quiet creatures affect the ecosystem.

"They consume insects in the summer, so that helps keep the insect population down. They're also pollinators, so they're a very important part of the ecosystem," Raystown Lake Ranger Allen Gwinn said.

Brumbaugh said the effects the animals have on the environment also spread to the economy and food supply.

"Bats eat a lot of bugs that destroy crops. They provide close to a billion dollars worth of pesticide control each summer, so without those bats, that's how much money we're going to have to spend in pesticides to get rid of those same bugs the bats were eating," Gwinn said.

In 2012, a fungus nearly wiped them out.

"In Pennsylvania, we've lost about 90 percent of our bat population from white nose syndrome," Brumabaugh said.

The National Wildlife Health Center describes the syndrome as "an emergent disease of hibernating bats that has spread from the northeastern to the central United States at an alarming rate."

The fungus disturbs the bats' normal hibernation, waking them up and depleting the energy they'd saved to survive the winter, according to the Wildlife Health Center.

"Then by the middle of winter, they've used their stored fat reserves, and they end up starving to death before the end of winter because they don't have any fat left and there are no bugs outside to eat," Brumbaugh said.

Many bats used to hibernate in the caves of Lincoln Caverns, but the walls have been bare in recent winters.

"When we lost our bats initially, we did find a lot of dead bats at the entrance and snow banks outside, which was very difficult," Brumbaugh said.

This November was different. She said that they found about four bats peacefully hibernating high in the caverns.

"We've been keeping an eye on them; hoping that they stay healthy. We're very excited, but at the same time, we're also cautious in our excitement to see if they make it through the winter or not," Brumbaugh said.

They're watching closely for any signs of the fungus or to see if the bats have moved or been disturbed.

As they wait, cautiously optimistic, Gwinn said that there are also ways people can help in their own backyards.

"Put out bat habitat structures for when the bats are out in the summer so that they can build up those energy reserves, so that they can find food and a place to stay warm, and hopefully so that the populations can stay strong to offset those unfortunately dying through the winter hibernation months," Gwinn said.

To teach locals even more about these creatures, Lincoln Caverns will host its 11th annual Batfest Saturday, Feb. 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tickets are available at lincolncaverns.com.

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