With the exception of a few bats near the natural entrance, moss growing around the electric lights, and bacteria in the underground stream, there is little animal or plant life in Howe Caverns.
However, in many caves the food cycle approaches what is known as a closed ecologic system. In a completely closed system, every organism feeds on and is eventually fed upon by still other organisms within the system. Even though the cave environment shows a higher degree of efficiency than most, cave animals still need help from the outside to survive. All life depends on sunlight even in the darkest areas of a cave. In sunlight, green plants make food. Leaves, twigs and plant debris are carried into the cave by rainwater. Droppings (from animals that go outside the cave to feed then return to the cave to rest, such as bats) add to this organic debris. Inside the cave, bacteria and fungi decompose these materials into simple foods and nutrients.
Fungus-eating creatures such as flatworms, isopods and other small animals within the cave system feed on the molds and bacteria. These animals then become food for the larger predators in the cave, including salamanders, crayfish and blind cave fish. As the larger animals die, decay sets in and organic material is then returned to the cave environment. The entire food chain process begins again. All species in the cave system are dependent upon each other for survival. Remember, the number of animals in a cave is far fewer than their relatives on the surface. For these reasons, we must remember not to disturb life within a cave.
As part of the cave community, we at Howe Caverns are most concerned about the spread of WNS and we're taking positivie steps to help the national effort to find the cause for this disease which is devastating to these environmentally important creatures. The National Caves Association has formed a WNS Committee and is actively working on educational materials that will be available at Howe Caverns and other member caves.The disease is named for the fuzzy white fungus that grows on sick bats' noses. The disease has killed more than 1 mlllion bats in the United States.
About WNS White-Nose Syndrome is killing large portions of various bat populations in the United States as they hibernate in caves and mines. Bats are losing their fat reserves that are needed to survive hibernation. This is happening long before winter is over. And, the bats are dying of starvation. While the cause is unknown, WNS gets its name because of the telltale white fungus growing on the noses of infected bats. The fungus, Geomyces destructans, also may appear on the bat's wings, ears and tail. However, bats affected with WNS do not always have the fungus growing on their bodies. They may, instead, display abnormal behavior such as flying outside during the day in near-freezing weather or not arousing at all after being disturbed. Mortaltiy rates of 70-100% have been documented in the first year in many hibernacula found to have WNS. In caves where fewer than 100% of the bats died the first year, populations continue to decline in successive years. Damage to wings and bodies persists in bats that survive a winter in a WNS-infected population.
In 2012 reports of the disease continues to spread across the United States, however, the good news is bat hibernations are seeing more survivors than in previous years. In April 2012 WRGB CBS-6 affiliate in Albany, NY reported from the undeveloped section of Howe Caverns with some encouraging news. CLICK HERE TO WATCH
Bats are an essential, benefical part of the ecosystem. They play critical roles in insect control, plant pollination, seed dissemination and cave ecosystems. They provoide food for other animals (hawks, owls, raccoons, skunks, etc.). Consuming over half their body weight in insects nightly, bats reduce the need for insecticides and are a major predator of night-flying insects. Bats also play a significant role in science and medicine. Bat research has enabled advancements in sonar, vaccine development and blood coagulation, as well as artificial insemination. Decimation of bat populations will cause a substantial ecological ripple effect, with far-reaching consequences.
More information is available at the websites of Bat Conservation International at www.batcon.org and the National Speleological Society at www.caves.org/WNS
Bats are the only flying mammals. There are more than 900 species of bats. Bats are nocturnal. Bats are usually timid. A baby bat is called a pup. Most bats are harmless to people. However, they should not be handled without protective measures. Bat wings are actually thin membranes of skin that stretch between the fingers of the front leg and extend to the hind legs and tail. When a bat rests, it folds its wings alongside its body to protect the delicate finger bones and wing membranes.