(NOTE: Originally published June 12, 2012. Reprinted here for archival purposes.)

MAQUOKETA, Iowa – Wildlife officials have detected the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome for the first time in a cave at Maquoketa Caves State Park.

The caves recently reopened this spring after being closed for years because of concerns over the syndrome, which can be fatal in bats.

But the recent discovery apparently isn’t linked to the reopening.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said efforts to prevent the spread of a fungus will be stepped up after a low level was detected on a hibernating big brown bat.

The detection of the fungus came from a swab taken during sampling on the hibernating bats in March, DNR officials said. This was about one month before the caves were reopened in April.

The testing is used to detect DNA that would indicate the presence of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, which has been deadly for bats particularly in the northeastern portions of the United States and Canada. The testing was done as part of a national study being conducted in an effort to stop the spread of the disease.

A total of 15 bats were swabbed at Dancehall Cave, which is one of the largest caves in the park and features a paved walkway, with the very low level of the fungus detected on only one bat.

“The level is so low it’s difficult to say what this detection means,” Daryl Howell with DNR was quoted in a news release. “It may be at a level low enough that it may not infect the bats at all or it could be just the beginning of an outbreak that we will see in the future.”

But Howell said even the small detection of the fungus changes the dynamics at Maquoketa Caves State Park.

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

To that end, the DNR will add mats with disinfection solution that people will walk across after leaving the caves to decrease the potential of spreading the fungus to other caves and bat populations. People who have recently visited other caves will also walk across the disinfection mats prior to going into Maquoketa Caves.

The DNR also will have staff available at the caves to provide information to visitors on how to prevent the spread of the fungus. After participating in the educational program, cave visitors are provided a wristband. So far this year, more than 10,000 wristbands have been given out.

“Education is probably the most effective tool we have to prevent the spread of the disease,” said Kevin Szcodronski, chief of the state parks bureau.

The park’s caves were closed for two years because of concerns about white-nose syndrome and the approximately 400 bats that hibernate there in the winter. The caves were reopened this spring because the DNR was able to have staff available to educate the public about precautions needed to prevent spreading of the disease.

Szcodronski said one of the primary messages to visitors at Maquoketa Caves is to not visit other caves with any clothing or gear that was used there. (6.14.12)