Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lava Caves: Closed

One of the main attractios of El Malpais National Monument, located about 20 miles south of Grants, NM, are the lava caves. Caves created from ancient lava tubes are found throughout the park, with some cave systems extending as far as seventeen miles.

However, all caves have been closed for recreational use. As we talk about the reason for these closings, we will present photographs of the landscape of El Malpais, beginning with the photo which includes the moon.

The closures are the result of an effort to prevent the spread of White-nose
Syndrome (WNS) to the bat population of the caves.

Quoting from information provided by the Ranger at the Visitor Center, "More than one million hibernating bats have died in the Eastern United States. They have been found with a skin infection in the form of a white fungus on their muzles and wings. Evidence shows that this fungus is moving westward.

"This fungus thrives in the cold and humid conditions of caves and mines, which are the prime habitat for many bat species. Bats affected with WNS may not always have the charac-teristic white fungal growth around their nose, but they display abnormal behavior in and outside of their hibernation places.

"The skin infection may act as a chronic disturbance, causing bats to awaken from hibernation. Each time a bat wakes up, it uses some of the fat reserves it has built up to survive over winter.

"If anything increases the frequency or durantion of such arousals during winter, a bat's fat reserve can be depleted. With no insects available for bats to eat, they will starve.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes WNS is spread from bat to bat. However, it is also a strong possibility that the disease is transferred from cave to cave by humans carrying the fungus on their clothing, equipment or caving gear.

"White-nose Syndrome was first documented in eastern New York during the winter of 2006-2007. Since then, the fungus associated with WNS has spread westward into the Oklahoma panhandle.

"Mortality rates of 90-100 per cent have been documented at several hibernation sites in the eastern U.S.

"It has been estimated that the one million bats that have died would have eaten 2.4 million pounds of insects in one year. Consuming over half their body weight in insects each night, bats in the U.S. eat thousands of tons of insects nightly."

Leaving El Malpais and Grants, we were struck by the grandeur of Mount Taylor (above) and the variations in the landscape.

From the sandstone cliffs of El Malpais to the expanse of the high desert east of Grants, the contrasts are striking and beautiful--even in winter with its limited ranges of colors.

And the clouds of New Mexico contribute their unique form of artistry.

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