Fungus that causes bat disease found in Iowa cave

The Maquoketa Caves were closed for two years because of concerns about white-nose syndrome

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Government scientists said Wednesday that white-nose syndrome, a fatal bat disease, “will very likely turn up in Iowa in a year or two.”

The recent discovery of the fungus that causes the disease on a hibernating big brown bat at Maquoketa Caves State Park makes it increasingly likely that the disease itself will surface in Iowa, said Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We have expected it to get here. Now we expect it to get here sooner rather than later,” Coleman said during a telephone conference with Iowa reporters.

Samples collected in March from 15 of the approximately 400 bats hibernating in the park’s Dancehall Cave revealed a low level of the fungus on one bat, according to Daryl Howell, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources zoologist.

The discovery, he said, prompts changes at the park, which recently reopened its caves to the public after a two-year closure intended to protect bats from exposure to the fungus.

“We now go from trying to prevent the fungus from getting into the cave to trying to prevent it from getting out,” Howell said.

Perhaps as soon as Monday, the DNR will require visitors leaving the caves to walk across mats treated with disinfectant to minimize the potential for spreading the fungus to other caves and bat populations.

People who have recently visited other caves also will walk across the disinfection mats before entering Maquoketa Caves.

While the disease is transmitted primarily from bat to bat, the scientists said fungal spores can be carried into and out of caves on human visitors’ clothing and gear. They said the syndrome is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets or livestock.

The testing was part of a national study undertaken to halt the spread of the disease, which has killed thousands of bats in the northeastern United States and Canada.

DNR Parks Bureau Chief Kevin Szcodronski said the caves could not have reopened this spring without legislative funding for staff to instruct visitors on how to prevent spread of the fungus.

So far this year the DNR has issued more than 10,000 wristbands to participants in the educational program, he said.

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