COLUMBIA — Tours through Devil’s Icebox Cave in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park have been canceled through fall due to a fungus that is spreading among bats.
Fall tours of the cave were scheduled Aug. 1 through Oct. 8. The cancellation is part of the Department of Natural Resources' ongoing closure of certain caves due to the fungus, which leads to white-nose syndrome in bats.
White-nose syndrome is primarily spread through bat-to-bat contact. Because the fungus has traveled farther than a bat could fly, experts think humans who have visited infected caves could be spreading the fungus to clean caves.
According to Bat Conservation International, it has killed more than 1 million bats in the United States and Canada, and mortality rates approaching 100 percent are reported in some locations.
The Department of Natural Resources is in a “stage of constant evaluation” of the situation due to the potential discovery of new information, department spokesman Judd Slivka said.
“We’re being cautious as we learn more about the transmission of the disease,” he said.
Missouri State Parks’ four major show caves will remain open, including Onondaga Cave and Cathedral Cave at Onondaga Cave State Park, Fisher Cave at Meramec State Park and Ozark Caverns at Lake of the Ozarks State Park.
Connor’s Cave, which shares an entrance with Devil’s Icebox Cave, plans to remain open for school tours and programs. According to a previous Missourian article, about 4,800 school children tour the cave each year.
Slivka said show caves will remain open because the probability of visitors transferring spores is not as high, as these people are less likely to have been in another cave recently.
“You’re not going to get hard-core cavers in show caves,” Slivka said. “They’re tamer than our wild caves.”
Screening measures are in place, such as requesting that visitors not take clothing, accessories or shoes recently worn in another cave into the tour cave.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, white-nose syndrome is a fungal disease first discovered in a cave in New York in 2006. The disease speeds bats’ metabolism during hibernation, which causes them to awaken in search for food, at which point they usually die from exposure or starvation.
White-nose syndrome was recently discovered in three caves in Missouri, according to a Department of Natural Resources news release. It was first discovered in April in a cave in Pike County, according to a previous Missourian article.
Slivka said Missouri’s caves have a lot to lose.
“Our wild caves are gems,” Slivka said. “Missouri is ‘the Cave State’ for a reason. We want to be good stewards of those caves and the ecosystems within them.”