Underground News

   The Hollow Earth News (HEN) is the official monthly newsletter of the WSS. Care to submit something to The Hollow Earth News newsletter?  Trip reports, pictures, articles or anything caving related is welcome. Send your submissions to Karen Fiske, the HEN editor's address via mail or email, please click-  Karen Fiske , here is are samples of our Hollow Earth News 3/2012 and Hollow Earth News 4/2012.

                                                         click for up to date world caving news

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NSS calls on U.S. Government to Change Cave Closure Policies on WNS

posted Apr 26, 2018, 6:47 AM by Al Schema   [ updated Apr 26, 2018, 6:53 AM ]

Recommendations from NSS Chair of the Directorate Peter Youngbaer

The NSS' letter to Secretaries Zinke and Perdue will have more impact if the Secretaries also hear from Senators and Representatives that they would like to see them address the WNS cave closure policies. If you, as NSS members, contact your Senators and Representatives and ask them to contact the Secretaries and support the NSS' letter, that will help greatly. Cabinet officials prioritize responses to those politicians currently in office, so your asking your congressional delegation to support the NSS' letter will make this effort stronger. Thank you.

How to contact your U.S. Representatives: https://www.house.gov/representatives


Ledge View 5K Caveman Adventure Run

posted Apr 10, 2018, 6:53 AM by Al Schema   [ updated Apr 10, 2018, 6:54 AM ]

Ledge View 5K Caveman Adventure Run

Image may contain: drawing
Saturday, May 12th

Start Time:10 am

Not a "Tuff Mudder" but we have several challenges and you will get dirty! This is a one-of-a-kind course that features views from a 60ft. tower followed by entry into an underground cave system. Register by THIS THURSDAY to receive a Caveman 5K t-shirt and a hot/cold Tumbler courtesy of the Friends of Ledgeview Nature Center for only $25! https://runsignup.com/Race/WI/Chilton/Caveman5KAdventureRun

Volunteers Needed for 2018 Caving Season

posted Mar 12, 2018, 6:31 AM by Al Schema   [ updated Mar 12, 2018, 6:31 AM ]

Minnesota's Mystery Cave open for Jan. 1 First Day Hikes

posted Dec 27, 2017, 10:34 AM by Al Schema   [ updated Dec 27, 2017, 10:37 AM ]

                     Mystery Cave State Park. Photo credit: Minnesota DNR.

FORESTVILLE, Minn. - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is promoting a day of free hikes at 14 state parks on New Year’s Day, but there’s only one hike that is guaranteed to be an escape from the cold weather.

This year, for the first time during winter, guided tours of Mystery Cave State Park in Forestville are available. Discovered in 1937, Mystery Cave is the longest cave in Minnesota, spanning more than 13 miles underground. Mystery Cave also stays at a constant 48 degrees year-round. It’s usually a welcome escape from the heat in summer, but it sounds like a tropical vacation right now compared to single-digit and subzero temperatures across most of Minnesota.

Typically, public tours of Mystery Cave are only offered between April and October, but the cave is included in this year’s “First Day Hikes.” The nationwide effort led by state park systems is pushing people to start the New Year with fresh air and physical activity. More than 400 First Day Hikes are scheduled in all 50 states.

Tours of Mystery Cave will take place hourly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reservations for the cave tours are recommended, but tours also will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis, if space is available. For information about tour prices and to make reservations, visit www.mndnr.gov/reservations or call 866-857-2757.

People should dress for the weather, so ideally in layers that can shed when they warm up as they get moving. They may also want to bring a light backpack to store a water bottle, a nutritious snack, binoculars, a camera, and those extra layers of clothing.

A vehicle permit ($7 for a one-day permit or $35 for a year-round permit) is also required to enter Minnesota state parks.

For more information, contact the DNR Information Center at info.dnr@state.mn.us or 888-646-6367 (8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday).

Announcing the 53rd Annual WSS Hodag Hunt Festival

posted Jul 27, 2017, 7:04 AM by Al Schema   [ updated Jul 31, 2017, 3:27 PM ]

Announcing the 53rd Annual WSS Hodag Hunt Festival

August 25-27, 2017


   We are happy to announce that the 53rd annual Wisconsin Speleological Society (WSS) Hodag Hunt Festival is at Crystal Cave this year (http://www.acoolcave.com) near Spring Valley, Wisconsin. Crystal Cave is a great location as it features both extensive wild caving opportunities and a renowned breath taking commercial cave to visit.

   The Hodag Hunt Festival is a yearly weekend caving jubilee for cavers from Wisconsin and the surrounding states. It is a great time to get together for exploring lots of caves during the day, later reconnecting and relaxing with fellow cavers, and above all having lots of social fun and camaraderie. You do not have to be a WSS member or be affiliated with any other caving grotto to attend. Everyone is welcome! We do encourage new attendees to join the WSS if they are interested.

  Why Crystal Cave:  Crystal Cave is the largest explored cave system in Wisconsin, with over a mile of mapped cave passages. It would take well over a day just to see and admire all the passages and rooms in it. On the Crystal Cave property itself, there are also multiple additional caves that can be explored in easy walking distance from each other. Seeing all of these other individual caves thoroughly will take yet another day of exploring. One particularly interesting cave on the property is South Portal Cave. At South Portal, there has been an active excavation project in progress for years. During the last Hodag outing at Crystal Cave in 2010, South Portal had an impressive survey length of 554 feet. The cave has almost doubled in size since then. The cave today is getting close to measuring 1000 feet of passage. Once it achieves 1000 feet of passage, it will move into the unique top 10 list for Wisconsin cave lengths. Interestingly there are only 10 caves in Wisconsin that are over 1000 feet in length. Crystal Cave is at the top of that list with over a mile of passages. A recent breakthrough this summer in June added an additional 80 feet of voided passage and revealed multiple impressive new cave formations that have never been seen before. The closeness of yet another major breakthrough during the Hodag is a very real possibility. A special breakthrough excavation dig is being offered all day Thursday and Friday, August 24th and 25th, in South Portal Cave. You could become a historical participant of a major cave discovery in Wisconsin just by being at the Crystal Cave for Hodag Hunt Festival.

   Part of Crystal Cave is also a well known, highly decorated, commercial cave. The commercial tour offers an hour-long, underground trip down lighted stairways and even pathways by experienced and knowledgeable tour guides. Every registered Hodag participant, including kids, will be given free Crystal Cave commercial cave tickets. Each cave ticket is a $16 value per adult. The cave tour offers spectacular formations of stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone that cover the ceiling and ledges of the cave. You will see something new and breathtaking at just about every corner of the tour.

   Other advantages for having the Hodag at Crystal Cave this year are onsite camping, caving, an evening meal, and a spectacular WSS auction that offers great deals for all. Everything is conveniently centrally located for all caving activities for the entire weekend without having to leave the Crystal Cave property.

  Requirements to attend: We have two very important requirements for everyone who is going into the noncommercial caves during the Hodag Hunt: 1) Everyone needs to have the proper caving equipment: a protective hard helmet of some sort and no less than hiking boots are a must for all caving trips; hands-free caving lights and protective clothing are highly recommended; knee pads and gloves will be needed for most trips (bring them if you have them, you will not regret having them); and 2) All your caving equipment and clothing must be clean to protect against the spread of the devastating White-Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is at Crystal Cave. It is responsibility of each caver to know and comply with current WI-DNR rules, regulations, and USFWS approved decontamination protocols.


                                                                 Hodag Fun: The WSS uses the Hodag Hunt weekend as a caving social gathering and uses the funds raised at the Hodag auction to support its various caving activities throughout the year. Please do bring items for the auction and some extra money for the great buys and interesting finds you will see at the auction. The weekend will be full of great caving trips, and the best part, you do not have to go any farther than a short walking distance from where you will be camped for the Hodag to see lots of caves. A full picnic style cookout dinner will be provided by the WSS on Saturday night. The evening meal is being offered at a minimal fee. There will be social gathering every night by a large pit fire to unwind from the day’s activities. Please bring any musical instruments to join in on the nightly fun activities. Featured for this year at the Hodag is a special arranged trip to Sandland Mine. Sandland Mine is the brainchild of Eric Sutterlin and is only 20 miles driving distance from Crystal Cave. Sandland Mine is a 3-D maze of tunnels that is being systematically excavated out according to a master surveyed plan and is designed to purposely disorient cavers. It is sort of like a corn maze but underground.
  Cost: Pre-Registration is $10 per person. On-site registration is $11 per person. There is no registration charge for children under 15. Camping on site per family is $5 for the entire weekend. The evening meal is $6 for adults and older children, $3 for children 3 to 13 in age, and children under 3 eat for free.

  Camping: Field sites for tents and campers that have no hookups are available right on the Crystal Cave property. Camping spaces may become limited depending on the Hodag turnout, so camping space availability will be on a first come first serve basis only. No space can be reserved, so it is best to arrive early if you can. We will do everything in our power that is reasonable to fit everyone in. The overflow area to camp if Crystal is full will be the Highland Ridge Campground in the Eau Galle Recreation Area (http://www.recreation.gov/campgroundDetails.do?topTabIndex=CampingSpot&contractCode=NRSO&parkId=73204). It will also be the camper’s choice to go there if you want electrical and full hookups. They do take reservations so it is wise to get a site locked in as soon as you can. The campground is about 7 miles from Crystal Cave. For reservations or information about the alternate camping site, call 715-778-5562.

   Camp Firewood: Due to the emerald ash borer, no firewood may be brought in for camping. The good news is Crystal Cave will be providing free all the firewood we need for our outing.

   Showers: There have been shower arrangements made less than a mile from the Crystal Cave entrance. The Spring Valley Golf Course will offer showers for a $5 per person and provide clean towels for anyone interested in getting cleaned up after a long day of caving activities.

   Caving Trips: Saturday caving trips will be offered from 10AM to 4PM and Sunday from 10 AM to 3 PM. Sign-up sheets will be available at the Registration Friday night and Saturday morning. A Hodag event briefing at 9:30 Saturday morning is required of everyone. For any wild caving trips, everyone needs to be aware of White Nose Syndrome decontamination protocol to go on any caving trips. Clean clothes and decontaminated caving gear are a must for all cave trips. Decontamination sprays and baths will be provided by the WSS for everyone’s use, if it is needed. Multiple caving trips will be offered. Eight on-site caves are available for caving in addition to Crystal Cave itself. The other on-site caves are Overlook Cave, Cancon Cave, Fox Den Cave, Play Caves, Tree Fork Cave, Fuzzy Critter Cave, Gargolies Cave, and South Portal Cave. An off-property trip to Sandland Mine is being offered. Other off-property cave trips may also become available closer to the actual Hodag event dates.

   Vertical Caving:  Bring your vertical caving gear, including ropes. A 35-foot lift will be provided at the campsite for vertical caving practice.

   Non-caving Activities:  Crystal Cave is only a 60-minute drive from the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area. There is a multitude of things to see and do there. You have multiple Museums, Historic Fort Snelling, Minnesota Zoo, Mall of America, and many more interesting sites. See

http://www.frommers.com/destinations/minneapolisandstpaul). Closer to Crystal Cave you have Eau Galle Recreation area, Spring Valley Gulf Course, Cady Cheese Factory and Gift Shoppe, Maple Leaf Orchard, Vino in the Valley and many more attractions found at (http://springvalleywisconsin.org/visit.html). If you like waterfalls, this gem of a waterfall is 32 miles from Spring Valley in Willow River State Park Willow River State Park - Wisconsin DNR.


Picnic Shelter: Registration and the main hub for informational activities at Crystal Cave for the Hodag will be at the new picnic shelter. The shelter is a covered building with lots of picnic tables and a cement floor; a great place to hang out in case of inclement weather. It is located close to the outdoor bathrooms next to the Crystal Cave gift shop. Check-in and registration will take place here. Please check in when you first arrive and before you set up at any camping site. It will also be the site for the Hodag evening meal and WSS auction.          

   Crystal Cave Directions: From Minneapolis / St. Paul, MN take Interstate 94 (I94) east into Wisconsin. Follow I94 19 miles past Hudson WI to Exit 19 (Ellsworth Exit). Turn south (right) onto Highway 63. Go seven miles south. Signs will direct you to turn left (east) on Hwy 29 towards Spring Valley and the cave. From Eau Claire, WI take Interstate 94 (I94) west to Exit 28 (Spring Valley). Turn south (left) onto Highway 128. Go five miles south to Highway 29. Turn right on Highway 29, following the signs to Spring Valley. Continue west on Highway 29 past Spring Valley for one more mile. Crystal Cave is on the left side of the highway.


                                                                        Hodag Event Schedule


Wednesday Night (August 23rd): Early check-in for those cavers participating in the all-day Thursday and Friday excavation dig in South Portal Cave. Camping is free for Wednesday and Thursday nights.


Thursday and Friday South Portal Excavations: Digging will begin at around 8:00 in the morning. Cavers will be on their own for lunch on Thursday and Friday. Just about everyone will just bring a light lunch to eat at the cave. Excavation time will conclude at dinner time.   


Thursday and Friday Dinner: Cavers are on their own for Thursday and Friday night dinners. There are multiple options for meals. The bill of fare includes fast food, home cooking, pizza, chicken, ice cream treats, baked goods, and fine dining. Baldwin ,WI just a little northwest of Spring Valley, about a 15 minute drive, offers nine restaurants offering a variety of good food and is located just off of the I-94 freeway. Spring Valley is just a 5-minute drive from Crystal Cave and has other great food options, including a Subway less than a mile from the hwy entrance to Crystal Cave.


Friday Registration: Registration starts at around 7:00 in the evening and will be run through Saturday morning for late arrivals.


Saturday Breakfast: Cavers will be on their own for breakfast. Denny’s Restaurant offers a huge breakfast menu selection and is only 15-minute drive from Crystal Cave at the intersection of I-94 and Hwy 128. The Subway in Spring valley also now offers a breakfast menu.


Saturday Caving: Caving activities start at 9:30 AM with the Hodag activity briefing. Everyone MUST attend the briefing. Cave trips will leave at 10:00. Everyone should be back at the campsite to get cleaned up by 5:00 to get ready for the cookout dinner.


Saturday Lunch: Cavers are on their own for lunch on Saturday. If on an extensive caving trip, lightly packed high energy foods are suggested.


Saturday Dinner Cookout: The Saturday Cookout Dinner will be served in the “Twinky”. Meal time is from 5:00 - 6:00. The cookout meal will be grilled hamburgers, brats, and hotdogs with all the fixings. Accompaniments to the grilled foods will be potato salad, coleslaw, chips, and dessert.


WSS Auction: The WSS Auction fund raiser will start around 6:30. Door prizes will also be given out during the auction.


Sunday Breakfast:  Cavers will be on their own for breakfast. Denny’s Restaurant offers a huge breakfast menu selection and is only 15-minute drive from Crystal Cave at the intersection of I-94 and Hwy 128. The Subway in Spring valley also now offers a breakfast menu.


Sunday Caving: There will be limited trips offered on Sunday. Caving activities start at 10:00 and should wrap up by 3:00 so people have plenty of time to tear down their camp sites and have daylight travel time for home.

     2017 WSS Hodag Hunt Registration Form

 Click Here

Geographic Translocation of Bats: Known and Potential Problems

posted Jan 4, 2017, 3:56 AM by Al Schema   [ updated Aug 30, 2017, 7:51 AM ]

Geographic Translocation of Bats:
Known and Potential Problems
Denny G. Constantine*

Natural, accidental, and intentional translocation of bats,
both intra- and intercontinentally, has been documented. Some
bats have been translocated while incubating infectious diseases,
including rabies or related lyssavirus infections; others
have escaped confinement en route to or at their destinations,
while others have been released deliberately. Known events
and potential consequences of bat translocation are reviewed,
including a proposed solution to the attendant problems.

Among the many potential consequences resulting from the
geographic translocation of life forms is the spread of
infectious disease organisms harbored by that life form. This
consequence was demonstrated long ago by the early devastation
of native American human populations caused by pathogens
inadvertently introduced by European explorers.
Similarly, wildlife rabies outbreaks occurred recently in the
United States after foxes, coyotes, and raccoons were translocated
to restock areas where these animals are hunted for
sport. Wild populations of introduced species can also become
common disease vectors where few or none existed before,
such as the current role of Indian mongooses (Herpestes javanicus)
in rabies transmission on Caribbean islands (1), or
they can become predators of native species, for example, the
wildlife destruction that occurred after ferrets and stoats were
introduced into New Zealand (2).
Bats have been translocated through natural, accidental,
and deliberate means. Pathogens associated with bats, such as
Rabies virus (RABV) and related lyssaviruses (3–6), can cause
disease after protracted incubation periods, ensuring the
extended survival of the host and parasite during periods of
translocation. Many bat species enter a hibernationlike state in
a cold environment, which further prolongs survival. In this
article, I describe some occurrences of bat translocation (published,
as well as previously unreported) and the potential consequences
of that translocation, as the basis for suggesting
preventive measures to alleviate the problems that accompany
the relocation of bats across the world.

Translocation of Bats
Natural Translocation
Some species of bats hibernate at the approach of cold
weather; other species migrate to warm areas instead. Bats that
migrate along coastlines take shortcuts over water and are
apparently blown far out to sea at times. Many North American
migrant bats have been found in Bermuda, 1,046 km east
of North Carolina, United States, during fall and spring migrations,
evidently having been blown there by wind along with
waves of migratory birds (7). These translocated bats include
Hoary Bats (Lasiurus cinereus), Red Bats (L. borealis), Seminole
Bats (L. seminolus), and Silver-haired Bats (Lasionycteris
noctivagans), all species from which RABV has been isolated
(8). Hoary Bats are also occasionally found in rabies-free Iceland,
also possibly blown there by the wind; one bat was captured
in the Orkney Islands, off rabies-free Scotland (9).
Similarly, Hoary Bats are sometimes found in the Galapagos
Islands, 966 km off the west coast of South America (10).

Translocation after Landing on Ships

Exhausted bats flying far at sea both individually and in
flocks have been reported to alight on ships and be transported
to unintended destinations. Most records are from the North
Atlantic Ocean and involve Red Bats and Silver-haired Bats
(11). A Southern Yellow Bat (Lasiurus ega) landed on a ship
over 322 km from the coast of Argentina (12). A “fruit-destroying
bat” was reported sleeping in the rigging of a ship upon
arrival in Hawaii from the Philippines (13), and a frugivorous
bat (Vampyressa pusilla) evidently boarded a vessel passing
through the Panama Canal and was later found aboard when the
ship was between Australia and Tasmania (14).

Translocation after Using Ships for Shelter
Bats sometimes roost in or on ships in port and may be
transported as a consequence. Silver-haired bats were discovered
hibernating in hulls of ships, and numbers of them found
various refuges on ships and yachts in New York (15). Little
Brown Bats (Myotis lucifugus) roosted aboard a ship that frequently
traveled from Canada to Europe, flying ashore after
arrival in the Netherlands and England (16). The presence of
individual Little Brown Bats in rabies-free Iceland (9) and
Kamchatka, Russia (17), has been attributed to travel by ship.
RABV, other viruses, and Histoplasma capsulatum have been
found in this species (3,8).
On January 21, 1997, a stevedore working in the hold of a
ship being unloaded in Long Beach, California, after its arrival
from Korea, was bitten on the back of his neck by a bat. A fluorescent
rabies antibody test was negative for RABV infection.
On February 1, I received the bat for evaluation and determined
it to be a Serotine bat (Eptesicus serotinus), which is similar to
the Big Brown Bat (E. fuscus) but with a slightly more massive 
skull. The Serotine has been reported in North Africa and
England and across Europe and Asia to Korea. Hundreds of ill
or dead Serotines have been found infected with the
RABV-related European bat lyssavirus 1 (EBLV-1) in Europe,
where one or two persons have died of the infection after bat
bites (5). The rabies conjugate used in the rabies test on the
Serotine bat’s brain reportedly reacts with this virus as well.

Translocation in Shipping Containers

Translocation of bats by ship also occurs when bats are
closed inside shipping containers. Free-tailed bats from the
tropics are occasionally transported long distances in fruit
shipments (18). A Pallid Bat (Antrozous pallidus) was discovered
in Victoria, British Columbia, in a shipment of lettuce
from California (19), where RABV-infected Pallid Bats have
been identified. A Big Brown Bat was found hibernating in a
timber container from Canada when it was unloaded in the
Netherlands (16). An Asiatic Pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus javanicus)
was discovered in a container transported by ship from
Japan to New Zealand (20). Sasaki et al. (21) reported the
arrival in rabies-free Hawaii of a RABV-infected Big Brown
Bat found flying in an automobile container from California.
Subsequent study indicated that previously the bat had been
transported to California either from Florida in the shipping
container or from Michigan in an automobile.
In October 1995, a group of live bats was observed hanging
in a dark corner within a large shipping container that had
just arrived at a Los Angeles port from Puerto Rico, but the
bats escaped as capture was attempted and no further reports
of these bats were made. Histoplasmosis, apparently absent in
California except for imported human infections, has been
diagnosed in some Puerto Rican bats.

Translocation by Aircraft

Bat translocation by aircraft has been reported several
times. A Little Brown Bat was found clinging to a seat in an
airplane at the end of a flight in Canada (22). An Eastern Pipistrelle
bat (Pipistrellus subflavus) was recovered from a plane
that had just arrived in Texas from Mexico (23); RABVinfected
bats of this species have been identified in the United
States and Canada. The carcass of a Little Brown Bat, presumably
from Tacoma, Washington, was found on a runway at an
Air Force base on rabies-free Guam (24). Stebbings reported
the arrival in England of a Silver-haired Bat aboard a U.S. Air
Force cargo plane from Delaware (25). Observed flying in the
plane en route, the bat was captured later while sleeping in a
crew member’s bed in the aircraft.
An Asiatic Pipistrelle bat was captured May 25, 1993,
aboard an airliner en route from Tokyo to San Francisco. This
bat was negative for RABV. The next month a Yuma Myotis
bat (Myotis yumanensis) was discovered flying aboard a U.S.
Air Force cargo plane en route from California to Hawaii. This
bat was also negative for RABV, although rabies has been
diagnosed in the species in California. Evidently the bat was
loaded into the aircraft within a shipment of fruit.
In early March 1995, a traveler who had just arrived in Los
Angeles by aircraft from South Africa opened his suitcase and
observed a bat fly out. The suitcase had been closed three days
earlier during darkness in a hut within Kruger National Park.
The bat was negative for RABV, and the frozen carcass was
sent to me 2 months later with the history of origin in a Los
Angeles County community. At first glance, the bat appeared
to be a common local free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis),
but closer inspection indicated differences, although the bat
belonged to a family with similar representatives in warm
areas worldwide. After extensive study, I determined the specimen
to be a Wrinkle-lipped bat (Chaerephon pumila), known
throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, and southern
Arabia. Further research disclosed the transported bat’s African
origin. This species supports experimental replication of
Ebola virus without showing disease signs (26); the remainder
of the carcass was immediately sent to a federal laboratory for
Ebola virus tests, which proved negative. Several other viruses
have also been isolated from the salivary glands of this species
in Africa (3).
In June 1997, a woman was bitten by a bat hiding in clothing
she was packing before an airline flight from Costa Rica to
California. The live bat was restrained in a plastic bag during
the flight; it was dead on arrival. The bat was negative for
RABV and was identified as a Sinaloan Mastiff Bat (Molossus
sinaloae), an insectivorous species in which RABV has been
reported (5).

Translocation for Confinement

Bats have been transported varying distances, sometimes
worldwide, to be maintained in captivity as research animals,
as live specimens in zoos or other exhibits, and as pets. Transport
for research purposes is not noteworthy except in unusual
circumstances. A Big Brown Bat in the incubational stages of
rabies was among live bats sent from Canada to a laboratory in
Germany, where the bat developed clinical rabies (27). Similarly,
six Big Brown Bats that were incubating RABV were in
a group sent from the United States to a laboratory in Denmark
(28). However, recipient laboratories understood the risks and
had taken necessary precautions.
RABV-infected individual bats of the tropical American
common Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus) have been
reported throughout their geographic range, which extends
from northern Mexico south to Chile and Uruguay (8,29).
RABV has also developed in Vampire Bats after being transported
to laboratories. In addition, during the 1970s, a group of
these bats sent from Mexico to a laboratory in the United
States presumably escaped en route, because only the empty
shipping container arrived.
Increasing interest in bats has resulted in displaying of
more varieties of these mammals, including Vampire Bats, to
the public (5). One such display presented a problem I investigated
in 1988 after four of eight Vampire Bats escaped their
flight cage within a cavelike structure at a southern California
zoo 1 month after their arrival from Mexico through a Texas
Emerging Infectious Diseases • Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2003 19
supplier. Two escaped bats were found dead, possibly due to
starvation or unusually cold weather. One dead bat had nearly
escaped the building, and the other was outside. Neither bat
was infected with RABV. The apparent escape route to the outside
was through a fragile false cave ceiling, which could not
be inspected. This ceiling may have contained the carcasses of
the remaining two missing bats, possibly a male and a female.
I found no bat bites on zoo animals and no bats or bat feces in
likely hideaways in the zoo.
The large fruit-eating bats (genus Pteropus) live on land
masses, including islands, from Madagascar, India, Southeast
Asia, the East Indies, the Philippines, and Australia to the
Samoan and Cook Islands of the South Pacific Ocean. They
have been popular zoo attractions for many years. RABV was
reported in a Pteropus in India (8), and RABV-related lyssaviruses
were reported in four species of Pteropus and an insectivorous
species in Australia, where two persons died of these
infections (30).
Three additional viruses (Paramyxoviridae family)
ascribed to Pteropus origin have proven pathogenic or fatal to
people and domestic animals. Four species of Australian
Pteropus bats in Queensland carry Hendra virus without developing
symptoms. These bats disseminate virus in urine or placental
fluid during birthing, and the virus is later ingested by
pregnant horses that amplify the virus, which then spreads to
people and causes a fatal pneumonia (13/20 horses were
infected in a 1994 outbreak, which resulted in two human
deaths) (30). The second virus, Menangle virus, is considered
to be spread to pigs in Australia by the same four species of
Pteropus bats, producing stillbirths with deformities in 1998 in
27% of litters, as well as an influenzalike illness in humans
(30). The third virus, Nipah virus, identified in urine and saliva
of Pteropus bats in Malaysia, apparently spreads the virus to
pigs and destroyed that country’s swine industry in 1998. The
virus spread from pigs to hundreds of industry workers;
approximately 40% of these workers died of severe viral
encephalitis caused by the agent (31).
Importation of fruit-eating bats has long been severely
restricted to protect the fruit industry in the United States. The
Egyptian Rousette bat (Rousettus egyptiacus) is a widespread
Old World fruit bat that readily reproduces in captivity; thus
colonies occur in some zoos. This species has been implicated
in several viral infections in Africa (3). An error occurred in
1994, when thousands of these and other bat species were permitted
entry into the United States for sale as pets or for exhibition
(28); this procedural mistake resulted in a policy change
to prevent recurrence. Antibodies to West Nile virus (WNV)
had been reported in the R. egyptiacus species in Uganda and
Israel (3), and the virus had been isolated in India from the
nearly indistinguishable R. leschenaulti, which overlaps geographically
with R. egyptiacus in Pakistan (32). The entry of
R. egyptiacus into the United States in 1994 suggests a remote
connection with the subsequent outbreak of WNV there, first
observed 5 years later among captive and wild birds at a zoo in
New York (33).
In 1997, two R. egyptiacus bats died with rabies-like
symptoms in a Denmark zoo; they were later found to be
infected with EBLV-1 subtype A, a RABV-related agent
known to have caused deaths in European insectivorous bats
and in humans. The two infected bats had arrived recently
from a Netherlands zoo, where the source captive bat population
subsequently was destroyed (34). A replacement colony
was similarly destroyed after a bat originating from a Belgian
zoo was also determined to be infected (35).
Persons concerned about sick and injured wildlife often try
to rehabilitate disabled bats, sometimes transporting the animals
a considerable distance from sites of discovery. Unfortunately,
an average of 10% of disabled bats tested in North
America are found to be infected with RABV, exposing those
trying to rehabilitate the bats to rabies. If they have received
preexposure rabies prophylaxis in advance, these persons are
advised to take booster shots of vaccine; otherwise, they are
advised to take both antirabies globulin as well as the full vaccine
Often, attempting to reverse the negative image of bats
usually held by the public, persons trying to rehabilitate sick
bats may suppress warnings of rabies hazards, doing both bats
and the public a disservice. Moreover, to avoid the embarrassment
of repeated exposures to rabid bats, some persons working
in bat rehabilitation are known to arrange submission of
rabies-suspect bats to a variety of different laboratories in different
geographic areas, thus disguising the true history of the
bat; this practice may protect the rehabilitator but prevent
other persons or pets exposed earlier from receiving adequate
antirabies management.

Translocation for Release

Bats have been translocated and released in attempts to
establish bat populations in new areas for reasons such as insect
control and experimental study. Such efforts are sometimes
supplemented by providing living quarters or shelters for bats
ranging from elevated boxlike structures to tunnels. Before the
knowledge that some insectivorous bats might be infected with
rabies or other pathogens, bats were sometimes transported
great distances over land or overseas and released in efforts to
establish populations at the new location. Tomich (13) assembled
historical records about the importation and release in
rabies-free Hawaii of Asiatic Pipistrelle bats from Japan and
free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) from California during
the late 1800s to establish bat populations for insect control
purposes, but the attempts were evidently unsuccessful.
Observing that destruction of old-growth forests eliminated
the tree hollow homes of Polish bats, Krzanowski (36)
recommended the introduction into Poland of Red Bats and
Hoary Bats from the United States because these species take
shelter in tree foliage rather than hollows, and they migrate at
the approach of cold weather rather than hibernate in tree cavities.
However, rabies was discovered simultaneously in North
American insectivorous bats, including these two species, discouraging
further consideration of the proposal.

20 Emerging Infectious Diseases • Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2003
The homing abilities of bats have routinely been studied by
transporting and releasing marked bats up to 805 km from
their home roost, which is then monitored for the return of the
marked bats (37). RABV infection has now been identified in
11 of the 12 North American species studied, and histoplasmosis
is known in 6; RABV-related lyssavirus infections have
been reported in 5 of 12 European species studied (8).
During World War II, field trials were conducted in the
southwestern United States to determine the effectiveness of
disseminating thousands of free-tailed bats (T. brasiliensis) in
the air, each transporting a small time-activated fire bomb. The
objective was to start thousands of simultaneous fires in adversary
target areas, achieved after each bat had sought out a hideaway
in various available structures (38). As a participant in
the project, I observed that each bomb or dummy bomb,
attached by a short string and surgical clip to the bat’s abdominal
skin, was disengaged after the bat alighted in a refuge and
chewed through the string. Thousands of bats were transported
<1,609 km distant from source bat caves in Texas and New
Mexico to test areas in California, New Mexico, and Utah.
Frequently, the tests were postponed, and the freshly captured
bats were released unencumbered at or near test sites.
Unknown at the time, RABV is now known to occur in 0.5%
of bats in the source caves (8), so the virus was almost certainly
translocated with the bats. H. capsulatum, the causative
fungus of histoplasmosis, also has been isolated from these
bats and their guano in the source caves, but neither bats nor
guano have yielded the agent in extensive surveys in California,
which is regarded as free of the fungus; no cases of indigenous
origin have been detected (8).

Bats and the pathogenic organisms they sometimes harbor
are being transported by humans within and between continents,
and sometimes these transported bats escape. Because
bats reproduce slowly (usually only one or two offspring are
produced annually by a female), the chances of successful
introduction of the species are minimized. Populations would
more likely develop should large numbers be freed in places
favorable to survival. Although a single escaped bat might not
survive long or reproduce, it would seek shelter in places frequented
by local bats to which it might transmit pathogens. As
has been observed, introduced pathogens include RABV, other
lyssaviruses, or various other agents.
Vampire Bats can be especially problematic in view of
their possible colonization in warm climates and their dependence
on a diet of blood, thus necessitating their biting vertebrates,
including man and domestic animals. As reported, in
addition to their known role as biologic vectors of rabies to
humans and domestic animals and surra (Trypanosoma evansi)
to horses and cattle, Vampire Bats can also be temporary biologic
as well as mechanical vectors of Venezuelan equine
encephalomyelitis virus and foot-and-mouth disease. They are
likely effective mechanical vectors if not biologic vectors of
any bloodborne pathogen, including the AIDS virus (29). Various
species of fruit-eating bats are infected at times with
pathogens destructive to other bats, humans, and domestic animals.
However, their entry to many areas is restricted due to
concern that their escape would lead to populations destructive
to fruit crops.
Accidental or planned translocations of bats between land
masses happens almost certainly with far greater frequency
than is reported. Such events can be embarrassing, and
although incidents that result in successful containment are
more likely to be reported, failed efforts can remain unpublicized.
Relevant reporting requirements do not exist. Personnel
involved in the various described incidents generally have performed
very well in efforts to resolve the problems, often with
immediately contrived solutions. Inspectors at entry centers
are usually exceptionally competent because they must cover a
broad array of subject areas, but their competency must be
taxed at times. For example, most bats are exceptionally adept
at avoiding capture, and even bat scientists with special equipment
frequently are outmaneuvered. Some inspectors contact
specialists for help in emergencies, but help is not always
available or is displaced by previous commitments and economic
necessities. Previous contractual arrangements with
institutions such as universities, natural history museums,
zoos, or specialized commercial services could dispel most relevant
problems, including funding, and maintain program continuity.
Unaffiliated specialized personnel would be expected
to maintain or acquire relevant competency, but incidents,
such as those cited here, show some lapses. Ideally, the services
of a bat expert are required. For example, if bats are to be
excluded from any vehicle of conveyance, the usual procedures
and equipment should be reviewed by responsible persons
very familiar with bats, their capabilities, their capture,
their confinement, and their exclusion in order to recognize
flaws that permit bats to be transported. Thus, experts can help
establish and maintain more effective programs.

Appreciation is extended to the counties and state of California
and to William E. Rainey, Elizabeth D. Pierson, Charles E. Rupprecht,
Jean S. Smith, Kevin F. Reilly, Thomas H. Kunz, and Amy Turmelle
whose help made relevant reports possible.
After the 1953 discovery of bat rabies in the United States, Dr.
Constantine established the Southwest Rabies Investigations Station
in New Mexico for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
and developed its program to investigate the problem and control bat
rabies. Now retired, he continues research in the field.

1. World Health Organization Expert Committee on Rabies. Seventh
Report; 1983 Sep 20–27; Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva: The Organization;
1984. Technical Report Series 709.
2. King C. Immigrant killers. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1984.
3. Constantine DG. Bats in relation to the health, welfare, and economy of
man. In: Wimsatt WA, editor. Biology of bats. Volume 2. New York: Academic
Press; 1970. p. 319–449.
Emerging Infectious Diseases • Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2003 21
4. Rupprecht CE, Dietzschold B, Wunner WH, Koprowski H. Antigenic
relationships of lyssaviruses. In: Baer GM, editor. The natural history of
rabies. 2nd ed. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press; 1991. p. 69–100.
5. Constantine DG. Chiroptera: bat medicine, management, and conservation.
In: Fowler ME, editor. Zoo and wild animal medicine. Current therapy
3. Philadelphia: WB Saunders Co.; 1993. p. 310–21.
6. Bourhy H, Kissi B, Tordo N. Molecular diversity of the genus Lyssavirus.
Virology 1993;194:70–81.
7. Van Gelder RG, Wingate DB. The taxonomy and status of bats in Bermuda.
American Museum Novitiates 1961;2029:1–9.
8. Constantine DG. Health precautions for bat researchers. In: Kunz TH, editor.
Ecological and behavioral methods for the study of bats. Washington:
Smithsonian Institution Press; 1988. p. 491–528.
9. Koopman KF, Gudmundsson F. Bats in Iceland. American Museum
Novitiates 1966;2262:1–6.
10. Peterson RL. Recent mammal records from the Galapagos Islands. Mammalia
11. Griffin DR. Migrations of New England bats. Bulletin of the Museum of
Comparative Zoology at Harvard College 1940;76:217–46.
12. Van Deusen HM. Yellow bat collected over South Atlantic. Journal of
Mammalogy 1961;42:530–1.
13. Tomich PQ. Mammals in Hawaii. 2nd ed. Honolulu; Bishop Museum
Press; 1986.
14. Hill JE, Smith JD. Bats: a natural history. London; British Museum (Natural
History); 1984.
15. Murphy RC, Nichols JC. Long Island flora and fauna. I. The bats (order
Chiroptera). The Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences
Science Bulletin 1913;2:1–15.
16. Voute AM. First recorded transatlantic bat transport. Bat Research News
17. Hahn WL. Myotis lucifugus in Kamchatka. Proc Biol Soc Washington
18. Palmer RS. The mammal guide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday; 1954.
19. Schowalter, DB. New records of British Columbia bats. Syesis
20. Daniel MJ, Yashiyuki M. Accidental importation of a Japanese bat into
New Zealand. Journal of Zoology 1982;9:461–2.
21. Sasaki DM, Middleton CR, Sawa TR, Christensen CC, Glen YK. Rabid
bat diagnosed in Hawaii. Hawaii Med J 1992;51:181–5.
22. Rand AL. Mammals of Yukon, Canada. National Museum of Canada
Bulletin 1945;100 (Biol Ser 29),93:1–93.
23. Burns KF, Farinacci CJ, Murnane TG, Shelton DF. Insectivorous bats naturally
infected with rabies in the southwestern United States. Am J Public
Health 1956;46:1089–97.
24. Wiles GJ, Hill JE. Accidental aircraft transport of a bat to Guam. Journal
of Mammalogy 1986;67:600–1.
25. Stebbings RE. A silver-haired bat, from Dover, Delaware, on its fall
migration southward down the eastern United States, ends up 3500 miles
in the wrong direction. News release to Reuters dated 22 September 1994.
26. Swanepoel R, Leman PA, Burt FJ, Zachariades NA, Braack LEO,
Ksiazek TG, et al. Experimental inoculation of plants and animals with
Ebola virus. Emerg Infect Dis 1996;2:321–5.
27. Schneider LG, Mueller WW, Hohnsbeen KP, editors. Rabies surveillance
report, April–June 1986. Rabies Bulletin Europe 1986;10:1–29.
28. Rupprecht CE, Smith JS, Fekadu M, Childs JE. The ascension of wildlife
rabies: a cause for public health concern or intervention? Emerg Infect
Dis 1995;1:107–14.
29. Constantine DG. Transmission of pathogenic organisms by vampire bats.
In: Greenhall AM, Schmidt U, editors. Natural history of vampire bats.
Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press; 1988. p. 167–89.
30. Mackenzie JS. Emerging viral diseases: an Australian perspective. Emerg
Infect Dis 1999;5:1–8.
31. Enserink M. Malaysian researchers trace Nipah virus outbreak to bats.
Science 2000;289:518–9.
32. Paul SD, Rajagopalan PK, Screenivasan MA. Isolation of the West Nile
virus from the frugivorous bat, Rousettus leschenaulti. Indian J Med Res
33. Nolen RS. Veterinarians key to discovering outbreak of exotic encephalitis.
J Am Vet Med Assoc 1999;215:1415,1418–9.
34. Müller WW, Cox JH, Hohnsbeen KP, editors. Rabies surveillance report,
July–September 1997. Rabies Bulletin Europe 1997;21:1–28.
35. Müller WW, Cox JH, Hohnsbeen KP, editors. Rabies surveillance report,
January–March 1998. Rabies Bulletin Europe 1998;22:1–24.
36. Krzanowski A. O potrzeble wprowadzenia nowych gatunkow nietoperzy
do naszych lasow. Sylwan, Warszawa 1954;98:96–9,222.
37. Davis R. Homing performance and homing ability in bats. Ecological
Monographs 1966;36:201–37.
38. Couffer J. Bat bomb. Austin: University of Texas Press; 1992.
Address for correspondence: Denny G. Constantine, 1899 Olmo Way, Walnut
Creek, California, 94598 USA

White-Nose Syndrome: New Policies Needed for Cave Management

posted Oct 20, 2016, 6:15 AM by Al Schema   [ updated Oct 20, 2016, 6:16 AM ]

White-Nose Syndrome

White-Nose Syndrome: New Policies Needed for Cave Management
By Merlin Tuttle

img-4471edfff_from-powerpointA field team is measuring bat roost stains in a limestone cave in Mexico to assess its approximate past importance to bats. Domed ceilings in warm caves are often extra darkly stained and etched due to heavy use by nursery colonies.

As reported in my keynote address at the 46th annual meeting of North American bat researchers last week, despite our best efforts, WNS has spread rapidly from coast to coast, and there is nothing we can do to stop, slow or find a safe, effective and practically applicable cure. It is here to stay, and eventually will reach every species and habitat that is susceptible. Bats are spreading it far more effectively than humans ever could. It is time to refocus our efforts on helping the few survivors rebuild resistant populations, as apparently has already happened in Asia and Europe.

The overwhelming response from colleagues was that it is time to refocus our efforts on providing the best possible protection at a time when populations are at critical lows. Each winter entry into a bat hibernation site forces at least partial arousals, adding a potentially insurmountable burden to already life-threatening energy losses caused by WNS. No matter how well intended, we can’t afford to risk becoming the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

This small bachelor group of Fringed myotis (Myotis thysanodes) likely has moved more often or has used this site for a shorter period, so its stains are less pronounced.

I was encouraged to speak with several colleagues at the conference who are already documenting apparent recovery of protected colonies of little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus) in the Northeast. Though this is one of the hardest hit species, current studies are documenting apparent reproductive success and gradual recovery. That’s very encouraging!

It is time to focus all possible resources on protecting surviving remnants from unnecessary disturbance. It is also time to acknowledge that closing all caves, even those never used by bats, is counterproductive, needlessly risking partnerships with cavers that we can’t afford to lose.

These stains illustrate an important characteristic of bat versus mineral stains. Because bat stains result from contact with bat bodies, they are always darkest on distal surfaces, lightest in recessed areas less in contact with bat bodies. In contrast, mineral stains tend to be as dark or darker in recessed areas. Dark stains are most often associated with warm roosts used in summer. They also occur in extra warm parts of hibernation caves, where bats go when awake.

Members of the National Speleological Society have been extremely cooperative during this multi-year period in which access to many of their favorite caves has been denied in hope of slowing the spread of WNS. They have played key roles, contributing financially in addition to helping researchers and resource managers find and protect key sites. Nevertheless, broad cave closures clearly have failed. Though reasonable precautions to avoid disturbance in caves suitable for bat occupancy should continue, there are no further reasons to restrict cavers from using caves which are not suitable for bats.

So how does one differentiate between caves suited for bat use versus those that are not? In the coolest climates caves are seldom used except for winter hibernation, and the opposite is true in the warmest climates. Southern caves are used mostly for rearing young. In intermediate climates, a few typically multi-entrance caves may provide effective cool or warm air traps, and to the extent that their volume is sufficient to trap large quantities of cold or warm air that remains relatively stable, they may provide ideal sites for hibernation or rearing young.

Where roosts have been used for very long periods, especially by nursery colonies in domed ceilings, the limestone becomes etched by CO2 from the bats’ breath, combined with wear from clinging claws. In such locations the harder, distal portions of the limestone surface also become extra darkly stained, sometimes also polished.

Throughout mid-latitudes, where a large proportion of North America’s caves are located, fewer than 10 percent are important for either hibernation or nursery purposes. However, at extreme northern or southern latitudes, large proportions of caves may be important for bats in winter or summer only. A few also may be important as migratory stopover sites.

img_4723edffffSome caves harbored truly massive numbers of bats prior to the arrival of human disturbance. This one in northern Mexico shows clear staining and guano evidence of past use by an enormous colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), one that almost certainly numbered in the 10s of millions. The staining continues for more than a quarter of a mile (0.4 km). Locals report having extracted a truckload of guano daily for more than 20 years.

The largest, most complex caves, with the largest (especially multi-level) entrances have traditionally sheltered the biggest and most diverse bat populations, mostly because they provide the widest range of temperatures, especially important during times of climate change. Any mid-latitude cave that traps and holds large volumes of exceptionally cold or warm air likely has been critically important for bats in the past. Large volume also means improved survival due to less unpredictable fluctuation. When bats are no longer using such caves, it is normally due to human disturbance or changes that have altered air flow unfavorably.

So how does one determine historical bat use? In a large proportion of caves, past use can remain clearly visible for hundreds of years after bats have been extirpated. Most limestone is light in color and is typically stained a rusty reddish color by prolonged bat use. With a little experience bat roost stains are typically easy to recognize. Caves where limestone is too hard or soft for leaving long-lasting stains are rare in North America. Old guano deposits, if not completely obscured by human traffic, may prove additionally useful.

0010740-editRoost stains in bat hibernation caves are typically lighter and less etched into the limestone compared with those left by active summer colonies. However sites of extra long and intense use sometimes show conspicuous evidence. Stains left by hibernating bats are often on vertical walls in extra stably cool caves that efficiently trap and store cold winter air without freezing. These Indiana myotis (Myotis sodalis) are hibernating in a marginal cave where numbers are declining.

By measuring areas of bat-stained limestone it is possible to make ballpark estimates of past population sizes. Most cave-roosting bats of North America cluster at densities of roughly 200 or more bats per square foot, so by measuring the approximate area of staining, and conservatively multiplying the area times 200, one can gain rough estimates of past population sizes. Certainly, when hundreds, or thousands of square feet are stained, that would indicate a past mother-lode roost for bats.

Even when no bats remain in such a cave, large populations often can be rebuilt if protected from disturbance, and human alterations to air flow are remedied. Cavers are typically the first to discover and report such evidence and already have proven invaluable in restoring some of America’s largest bat populations. This is a time when such cooperation is especially important, potentially contributing greatly to the recovery of cave-dwelling species.

Gray bats (Myotis grisescens) hibernating in Pearson Cave, Tennessee.These gray myotis (Myotis grisescens) have only moderately stained and etched surfaces at this roost, used since human disturbance forced them to move from a cooler, preferred roost in the same cave.

It is tempting to point out that in North America’s richest cave areas, most caves are unused by bats, and that those used are normally occupied only in summer or winter. Unfortunately, it is the largest, most complex caves that are often the most sought after by both bats and cavers. Nevertheless, when wise managers and cavers cooperate, they will often find that even in these complex caves, bats only need relatively small proportions in any given season, and that parts can remain open to responsible caving during specific times or even year-round.

For example, the famous Fern Cave in northern Alabama includes miles of passages critical to hibernating bats as well as miles of passages of extraordinary interest to cavers but not to bats. For more than 20 years, responsible members of the Huntsville Grotto of the National Speleological Society played a critical management role through a cooperative agreement. As site managers, they

psp-image-8This is an example of heavy use of a limestone crevice, over many years, by a small group of bats. Notice the heavy etching and dark staining at the edge, where bats can most easily cling to the surface. The staining gradually fades with increasing distance from the crevice.

regulated access in a manner very helpful to responsible cavers, to more than a million hibernating bats and to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the owner responsible for its protection).

The agency lacked the manpower and resources necessary to provide adequate protection for this remote property, so were happy to have onsite help from the Huntsville Grotto. Organized cavers were present year-round in the parts unused by bats, and near enough to check the entrance to hibernation areas for possible vandals or other problems. They also were able to use the bat area during the bats’ summer absence. Cavers provided the eyes and ears the Service lacked and did an exemplary job of ensuring that only authorized, supervised entry occurred.

One hundred thousand gray bats hibernating at 32 degrees F in Pearson Cave, Tennessee.One hundred thousand gray myotis hibernating at 32 degrees F (O degrees C) in a Tennessee cave. These bats roost in an incredibly stable cold air trap just 50 feet (15 m) from the cave entrance only when they remain undisturbed for several years. When disturbed they move to inner areas and decline in numbers due to the increased cost of hibernation at higher temperatures.

Unfortunately, when WNS became a threat, the cooperative management agreement was canceled, and no further entry by organized cavers into any part of the cave was permitted. The subsequent lack of regular monitoring by trained grotto members resulted in extensive vandalism when the government was unable to protect it from entry by an uninformed public. Moreover, the official closure appears to have had no effect in preventing the arrival of WNS. I hope this sad lesson will serve as an example of the importance of cooperation between cave owners and managers and responsible members of organized caving groups.


White-Nose Syndrome: Origin, Impact and Management

By Merlin D. Tuttle

White-nose syndrome (WNS) impact on bats - photo by nancy heaslipWNS infected bats.

White-nose syndrome (WNS) is caused by a fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans (formerly known as Geomyces destructans). It was first recorded from a photo taken in a cave in Schoharie County, New York in 2006. By the summer of 2014, it had spread across most of eastern North America (25 states and 5 Canadian provinces). In 2015 it reached Nebraska and in early 2016 had also been detected in Washington State.

It appears to have come from Europe via accidental introduction. But we still don’t know how it arrived. It has been hypothesized to have come on the shoes or clothing of a person who contacted it in a European cave, then visited a commercial cave in New York. However, in attempting to explain its sudden appearance in Washington State, Dr. William Halliday has pointed out a possibly more plausible explanation. He notes that, in both New York and Washington, the first sick bats were found within about 30 miles of a major shipping terminal where large quantities of freight are unloaded from Europe and Asia, and that bats have been known to “hitchhike” in large storage containers. It will be interesting to see if fungal cultures from Washington State versus New York can shed light on this intriguing question.

In eastern North America WNS has killed up to 90% of some species that hibernate in caves (especially little brown bats, northern long-eared bats and tricolored bats), with death tolls ranging in the millions. Other cave-hibernators, such as endangered Virginia big-eared and gray bats, seem to be unaffected. Additionally cave-dwellers that don’t hibernate, as well as tree-dwellers appear to be unaffected.

Infections cause bats to arouse too often from hibernation, exhausting limited fat reserves before they can feed again in spring. Though not yet proven, it seems likely that mortality will be heaviest where winters are longest.

Though WNS has had devastating impact on populations of bats that hibernate in caves, it also has provided an unprecedented opportunity to educate millions of Americans regarding the values of bats as insect predators and has stimulated the first widespread summer monitoring of status trends.

It is important to note that European bats appear to have already developed resistance to this fungus. And available evidence suggests that, with careful protection, small numbers of survivors in America will also be able to slowly rebuild immune populations.

I believe we are well past the point of stopping or even slowing this now widespread infection. The guiding principle must be “first, do no harm.” Killing infected bats is pointless, and attempting to decontaminate natural roosts with toxins or foreign organisms could result in disastrous unintended consequences. Finally, treating individual bats is impractical at more than a small, local scale, and it remains to be seen whether treated individuals will then be resistant to reinfection.


Our best remaining options are to: 1) strictly avoid further winter disturbance, 2) increase year-round protection of all roosts, 3) educate the public to overcome fear and understand the values of conserving bats and 4) promote minimally invasive research to better understand bat needs and status trends.


Aside from strict protection of bat roosting sites, especially in winter, there appears to be no further justification for closing caves. Organized cavers have proven themselves to be invaluable leaders in detecting sites in need of protection, in building and monitoring protective gates and in informing state, federal and private managers of vandalism. We owe a special debt of gratitude for their invaluable cooperation and leadership despite the fact that this crisis often has excluded them from their favorite places.

Announcing the 52nd Annual WSS Hodag Hunt Festival Sepetember 9-11, 2016

posted Aug 3, 2016, 4:51 AM by Al Schema   [ updated Aug 3, 2016, 4:51 AM ]

We are happy to announce that the 52nd annual Wisconsin Speleological
Society (WSS) Hodag Hunt Festival is scheduled for September 9-11, 2016, and we are set for yet another fun and adventurous caving weekend celebration. The Hodag Hunt Festival is a yearly weekend caving jubilee for Wisconsin and the surrounding states’ cavers. It is a great time to get together for exploring caves during the day, later reconnecting and relaxing with fellow cavers, and above all, having lots of social fun and camaraderie. Everyone is welcome to attend; you do not have to be a WSS member or be affiliated with any other caving grotto. Beginning cavers are all welcome.
This year’s event will be at Spook Cave & Campground which is uniquely known for its underground boat tours (http://spookcave.com/), located near McGregor, Iowa. The cave was first discovered in 1953 and opened for business in 1955. Spook Cave is an easy 9-mile drive from Prairie du Chien, in southwestern Wisconsin. Cross the Mississippi River from Prairie Du Chien into Iowa on Hwy 18 and drive due west for approximately 8 miles, watch for Spook Cave advertising signs, turn right and head due north one mile on Spook Cave Road. Turn left at the Bloody Run Creek bridge to enter the Spook Cave campground. Spook Cave’s address is 13299 Spook Cave Road, McGregor, Iowa, 52157.
Why Spook Cave & Campground: Spook Cave was chosen for this year’s Hodag
celebration for its uniqueness of being out of state. There have only been three other times that a Hodag Festival event has been out of state. One outing was in Northern Michigan in 2000. Another outing was a combined get together with the MSS at the Cornfeed in 2002 in Minnesota. Finally, the other out of state outing was at Spook Cave in 1987. Spook Cave is one of only a small handful of show caves in the USA that are toured by boat and it is the closest one to Wisconsin that offers boat tours. You don’t have to walk through the cave, but just lean back and leisurely glide through a lighted cave on a 40-minute boat ride to see stalactites and numerous other spectacular natural formations that offer numerous photo opportunities. Spook Cave Campground also features its own waterfall. Spook Cave was also chosen as the Hodag Festival site because of its close proximity to some of the most popular tourist and photo unique areas in eastern Iowa. With so much to see and do near Spook Cave, your weekend will be full of adventurist trips and leave you with monumental memories for a lifetime to come.
Hodag Fun: The WSS uses the Hodag Hunt Festival weekend as a caving social gathering and uses the funds raised at the Hodag auction to support its various caving activities throughout the year. Besides great commercial caving opportunities and scenic local attractions on both Saturday and Sunday, the WSS offers a great breakfast on both mornings, a picnic supper on Saturday night, and an auction after our evening meal. Please do bring items for the auction and some extra money for the great buys and interesting finds you will see. Nighttime activities include campfires and some spontaneous singing and playing of music if one is inclined to do so.
Camping: The WSS has reserved the group campsite at the Spook Cave Campground for camping. It does have water and a porta-pottie, but no
electricity. The site includes a small lake for fishing and a roped-off swimming area with a small sandy beach. On-site camping costs are $4 per night/person. Large families will only be charged a maximum of $20 per night/family in the group campsite. Group site camping needs to be paid directly to the WSS. All Hodag participants need to check in with the campground office to get vehicle passes. Individual non-group camping sites/day through the Spook Cave Campground with no hookups are available at $25, electricity and water hookups at $31, and those with an additional sewage hookup at $36. Costs are based on three people per site. A $2.50 charge/person is an additional site expense. Spook Cave Campground also has full service cabins to rent starting at $380 per weekend. Get your non-group site reservations locked in early to assure availability to the Spook Cave Campground at (http://spookcave.com/). All campsites including the group camp site have access to free showers, coin laundry, and flush toilet facilities. Golf cart rentals are also available for getting around the campground.
Registration: All participants of the Hodag Hunt Festival must register for the event. The Hodag on-site registration will begin Friday evening about 7:00 and continue through Saturday morning. On-site registration for ages 16 and above is $11, including the 2016 Hodag Hunt Festival Guidebook. There is no registration fee for kids age 15 and under.
Meal/Auction: Our evening meal and auction will be at the Driftless Area Wetlands Center near Marquette, Iowa 

(http://www.driftlessareawetlandcentre.com/). Marquette is on the Iowa side of the Hwy 18 Mississippi River bridge that links Iowa and Wisconsin. The Center is located on Hwy 18, one mile west of the Mississippi bridge and 8 miles from Spook Cave. The WSS has reserved the entire Center for our Hodag use from 4:00 PM till 10:00 PM. The Center includes a large parking area, with plenty of outside and inside seating for meals, a full kitchen, and indoor bathroom facilities. Our meal will be a family style all you can eat picnic-style meal which includes grilled brats, hotdogs, burgers, and all the picnic favorites of coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans, chips, as well as an assortment of beverages. The meal will be served from 6:00 - 7:30 PM. To keep costs down for Hodag participants, the meal costs are very reasonable at $6/per adult. Kids’ meals from age 2 to 12 are $3. Kids under 2 eat for free. The Hodag auction will immediately follow the meal at 7:30 inside the Driftless Area Wetlands Center.
Breakfast: Both Saturday and Sunday mornings will feature an all you can eat breakfast put on by the WSS right at the group site reserved campsite. The breakfast is $5 per person/meal, and will include pancakes, breakfast sausages, fruit, milk, coffee, and juices. You just never know what multiple unique flavors of pancakes will be offered this year by our renowned resident chef, Allan Schema.
Hodag Caving Trips: This year the WSS is only sponsoring show cave trips, as the Hodag Festival will be outside Wisconsin. Wild caving trips may be offered or attended by individuals, but you will be on your own for non-commercial trips. For any wild caving trips, everyone needs to be aware of the White Nose Syndrome decontamination protocol in order to participate. 
The WSS will be sponsoring trips to the nearby show caves of Niagara Cave (see photo at left) near Harmony, Minnesotahttp://www.niagaracave.com/index.html), Crystal Lake Cave located five miles south of Dubuque, Iowa (http://www.crystallakecave.com/), and Mystery Cave in Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park near Preston, Minnesota (http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mystery_cave/index.html). A 9:15 welcome and weekend activity briefing on Saturday is required for all Hodag Celebration attendees. The WSS has also reserved a guided, discounted caving trip of Spook Cave, which will be offered at 9:30 AM on Saturday morning. The cost per person for ages 13 and up is $10, children ages 4 to 13 is $7, and children under 4 are free.
Alternative Hodag Activities: Spook Cave is only a 7-minute drive from McGregor, Iowa (see photo at right) and Pikes Peak State Park. McGregor was chosen one of the top ten most beautiful towns in Iowa (http://www.mcgreg-marq.org/). It features streets lined with 19th-century buildings, antique and specialty shops, and great restaurants. Being on the Mississippi River, it also features numerous hiking, biking, boating, and fishing opportunities, as well as Mississippi River boat tours, shopping, a winery, brewery, a river casino boat, and much more. Pikes Peak State Park offers one of the finest overlook views of the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers (http://www.iowadnr.gov/Places-to-Go/State-Parks-Rec-Areas/Iowas-State-Parks/ParkDetails/ParkID/610141). It also features biking and hiking trails, a beautiful waterfall, effigy mounds, and picnic facilities with lots of nearby parking. Iowa State parks are also free to the general public for all visitors. Just three miles north of Marquette, Iowa on Hwy 76 and only a 12-minute ride from Spook Cave, is another unique area attraction, Effigy Mounds National Monument (https://www.nps.gov/efmo/planyourvisit/index.htm). Here the Natural Park Service preserves more than 200 prehistoric mounds built by Native Americans. Numerous mounds are shaped like animals, including bears and birds. Other nearby attractions include Wyalusing State Park, Villa Louis Historic Site, the city of Prairie du Chien, the city of Marquette, Iowa, and much, much more.
51st Annual WSS Hodag Hunt Festival: We are hopeful you will be able to join us for yet another fun Hodag Hunt Festival weekend. Early registration for the event will save you money on both registration and camping fees. Look for our registration form on the WSS website at (http://www.wisconsincaves.org/) or in our WSS newsletters. Early registrations must be received no later than Wednesday, September 7th. Festival attendees are reminded to be on the lookout for the elusive Hodag. The captor of the Hodag will be given a finder’s prize at the auction. Remember the WSS caving motto: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.” Have a safe caving adventure, wherever the caving trail may lead you!

                For more info contact Kasey Fiske at  kasey.fiske@wisc.edu

Announcing the 52nd Annual WSS Hodag Hunt Festival Sepetember 9-11, 2016

posted Mar 4, 2016, 9:00 AM by Al Schema   [ updated Mar 4, 2016, 9:01 AM ]

THE 52st ANNUAL HODAG HUNT FESTIVAL for 2016 will be held at Spook Cave & Campground, more details will be announced soon, GENERAL PUBLIC WELCOME, for more info contact Kasey Fiske at  kasey.fiske@wisc.edu

This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?

posted Sep 19, 2015, 8:09 PM by Al Schema   [ updated Sep 19, 2015, 8:44 PM ]

Discovered by Recreational Cavers ~

Scientists have discovered a new species of human ancestor deep in a South African cave, adding a baffling new branch to the family tree.

By Jamie Shreeve, National Geographic
Photographs by Robert Clark

PUBLISHED THU SEP 10 05:05:00 EDT 2015

While primitive in some respects, the face, skull, and teeth show enough modern features to justify H. naledi's placement in the genus Homo. Artist Gurche spent some 700 hours reconstructing the head from bone scans, using bear fur for hair.

A trove of bones hidden deep within a South African cave represents a new species of human ancestor, scientists announced Thursday in thejournal eLife. Homo naledi, as they call it, appears very primitive in some respects—it had a tiny brain, for instance, and apelike shoulders for climbing. But in other ways it looks remarkably like modern humans. When did it live? Where does it fit in the human family tree? And how did its bones get into the deepest hidden chamber of the cave—could such a primitive creature have been disposing of its dead intentionally?

This is the story of one of the greatest fossil discoveries of the past half century, and of what it might mean for our understanding of human evolution.

Chance Favors the Slender Caver

Two years ago, a pair of recreational cavers entered a cave called Rising Star, some 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg. Rising Star has been a popular draw for cavers since the 1960s, and its filigree of channels and caverns is well mapped. Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter were hoping to find some less trodden passage.

In the back of their minds was another mission. In the first half of the 20th century, this region of South Africa produced so many fossils of our early ancestors that it later became known as the Cradle of Humankind. Though the heyday of fossil hunting there was long past, the cavers knew that a scientist in Johannesburg was looking for bones. The odds of happening upon something were remote. But you never know.

Sunlight falls through the entrance of Rising Star cave, near Johannesburg. A remote chamber has yielded hundreds of fossil bones—so far. Says anthropologist Marina Elliott, seated, “We have literally just scratched the surface.”

Deep in the cave, Tucker and Hunter worked their way through a constriction called Superman’s Crawl—because most people can fit through only by holding one arm tightly against the body and extending the other above the head, like the Man of Steel in flight. Crossing a large chamber, they climbed a jagged wall of rock called the Dragon’s Back. At the top they found themselves in a pretty little cavity decorated with stalactites. Hunter got out his video camera, and to remove himself from the frame, Tucker eased himself into a fissure in the cave floor. His foot found a finger of rock, then another below it, then—empty space. Dropping down, he found himself in a narrow, vertical chute, in some places less than eight inches wide. He called to Hunter to follow him. Both men have hyper-slender frames, all bone and wiry muscle. Had their torsos been just a little bigger, they would not have fit in the chute, and what is arguably the most astonishing human fossil discovery in half a century—and undoubtedly the most perplexing—would not have occurred.

After Lucy, a Mystery

Lee Berger, the paleoanthropologist who had asked cavers to keep an eye out for fossils, is a big-boned American with a high forehead, a flushed face, and cheeks that flare out broadly when he smiles, which is a lot of the time. His unquenchable optimism has proved essential to his professional life. By the early 1990s, when Berger got a job at the University of the Witwatersrand (“Wits”) and had begun to hunt for fossils, the spotlight in human evolution had long since shifted to the Great Rift Valley of East Africa.

Most researchers regarded South Africa as an interesting sidebar to the story of human evolution but not the main plot. Berger was determined to prove them wrong. But for almost 20 years, the relatively insignificant finds he made seemed only to underscore how little South Africa had left to offer.

What he most wanted to find were fossils that could shed light on the primary outstanding mystery in human evolution: the origin of our genus, Homo, between two million and three million years ago. On the far side of that divide are the apelike australopithecines, epitomized by Australopithecus afarensis and its most famous representative, Lucy, a skeleton discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. On the near side is Homo erectus, a tool-wielding, fire-making, globe-trotting species with a big brain and body proportions much like ours. Within that murky million-year gap, a bipedal animal was transformed into a nascent human being, a creature not just adapted to its environment but able to apply its mind to master it. How did that revolution happen?

The fossil record is frustratingly ambiguous. Slightly older than H. erectus is a species called Homo habilis, or “handy man”—so named by Louis Leakey and his colleagues in 1964 because they believed it responsible for the stone tools they were finding at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. In the 1970s teams led by Louis’s son Richard found more H. habilis specimens in Kenya, and ever since, the species has provided a shaky base for the human family tree, keeping it rooted in East Africa. Before H. habilis the human story goes dark, with just a few fossil fragments of Homo too sketchy to warrant a species name. As one scientist put it, they would easily fit in a shoe box, and you’d still have room for the shoes.

New Human Ancestor Discovered: Homo naledi (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)

Berger has long argued that H. habilis was too primitive to deserve its privileged position at the root of our genus. Some other scientists agree that it really should be called Australopithecus. But Berger has been nearly alone in arguing that South Africa was the place to look for the true earliest Homo. And for years the unchecked exuberance with which he promoted his relatively minor finds tended only to alienate some of his professional colleagues. Berger had the ambition and personality to become a famous player in his field, like Richard Leakey or Donald Johanson, who found the Lucy skeleton. Berger is a tireless fund-raiser and a master at enthralling a public audience. But he didn’t have the bones.

Then, in 2008, he made a truly important discovery. While searching in a place later called Malapa, some ten miles from Rising Star, he and his nine-year-old son, Matthew, found some hominin fossils poking out of hunks of dolomite.

Over the next year Berger’s team painstakingly chipped two nearly complete skeletons out of the rock. Dated to about two million years ago, they were the first major finds from South Africa published in decades. (An even more complete skeleton found earlier has yet to be described.) In most respects they were very primitive, but there were some oddly modern traits too.

Berger decided the skeletons were a new species of australopithecine, which he named Australopithecus sediba. But he also claimed they were “the Rosetta stone” to the origins of Homo. Though the doyens of paleoanthropology credited him with a “jaw-dropping” find, most dismissed his interpretation of it. A. sediba was too young, too weird, and not in the right place to be ancestral to Homo: It wasn’t one of us. In another sense, neither was Berger. Since then, prominent researchers have published papers on early Homo that didn’t even mention him or his find.

Berger shook off the rejection and got back to work—there were additional skeletons from Malapa to occupy him, still encased in limestone blocks in his lab. Then one night, Pedro Boshoff, a caver and geologist Berger had hired to look for fossils, knocked on his door. With him was Steven Tucker. Berger took one look at the pictures they showed him from Rising Star and realized that Malapa was going to have to take a backseat.

Skinny Individuals Wanted

After contorting themselves 40 feet down the narrow chute in the Rising Star cave, Tucker and Rick Hunter had dropped into another pretty chamber, with a cascade of white flowstones in one corner. A passageway led into a larger cavity, about 30 feet long and only a few feet wide, its walls and ceiling a bewilderment of calcite gnarls and jutting flowstone fingers. But it was what was on the floor that drew the two men’s attention. There were bones everywhere. The cavers first thought they must be modern. They weren’t stone heavy, like most fossils, nor were they encased in stone—they were just lying about on the surface, as if someone had tossed them in. They noticed a piece of a lower jaw, with teeth intact; it looked human.


Berger could see from the photos that the bones did not belong to a modern human being. Certain features, especially those of the jawbone and teeth, were far too primitive. The photos showed more bones waiting to be found; Berger could make out the outline of a partly buried cranium. It seemed likely that the remains represented much of a complete skeleton. He was dumbfounded. In the early hominin fossil record, the number of mostly complete skeletons, including his two from Malapa, could be counted on one hand. And now this. But what was this? How old was it? And how did it get into that cave?

Marina Elliott explores a side chamber with paleontologist Ashley Kruger. Elliott was one of six scientists on the expedition with the skill and physique to reach the Dinaledi chamber. Lee Berger, on screen, follows progress from the surface.

Most pressing of all: how to get it out again, and quickly, before some other amateurs found their way into that chamber. (It was clear from the arrangement of the bones that someone had already been there, perhaps decades before.) Tucker and Hunter lacked the skills needed to excavate the fossils, and no scientist Berger knew—certainly not himself—had the physique to squeeze through that chute. So Berger put the word out on Facebook: Skinny individuals wanted, with scientific credentials and caving experience; must be “willing to work in cramped quarters.” Within a week and a half he’d heard from nearly 60 applicants. He chose the six most qualified; all were young women. Berger called them his “underground astronauts.”

With funding from National Geographic (Berger is also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence), he gathered some 60 scientists and set up an aboveground command center, a science tent, and a small village of sleeping and support tents. Local cavers helped thread two miles of communication and power cables down into the fossil chamber. Whatever was happening there could now be viewed with cameras by Berger and his team in the command center. Marina Elliott, then a graduate student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, was the first scientist down the chute.

“Looking down into it, I wasn’t sure I’d be OK,” Elliott recalled. “It was like looking into a shark’s mouth. There were fingers and tongues and teeth of rock.”

Elliott and two colleagues, Becca Peixotto and Hannah Morris, inched their way to the “landing zone” at the bottom, then crouched into the fossil chamber. Working in two-hour shifts with another three-woman crew, they plotted and bagged more than 400 fossils on the surface, then started carefully removing soil around the half-buried skull. There were other bones beneath and around it, densely packed. Over the next several days, while the women probed a square-yard patch around the skull, the other scientists huddled around the video feed in the command center above in a state of near-constant excitement. Berger, dressed in field khakis and a Rising Star Expedition cap, would occasionally repair to the science tent to puzzle over the accumulating bones—until a collective howl of astonishment from the command center brought him rushing back to witness another discovery. It was a glorious time.

Top: With other team members, Berger, Elliott, and Kruger (foreground, from left) view the first images from the fossil chamber. Steve Tucker (far right) co-discovered the site. K. Lindsay Hunter and Alia Gurtov (back left) helped excavate the bones. Bottom: Monitors in the command center follow excavation in the cave by Elliott and Becca Peixotto (in foreground).

The bones were superbly preserved, and from the duplication of body parts, it soon became clear that there was not one skeleton in the cave, but two, then three, then five ... then so many it was hard to keep a clear count. Berger had allotted three weeks for the excavation. By the end of that time, the excavators had removed some 1,200 bones, more than from any other human ancestor site in Africa—and they still hadn’t exhausted the material in just the one square yard around the skull. It took another several days digging in March 2014 before its sediments ran dry, about six inches down.

There were some 1,550 specimens in all, representing at least 15 individuals. Skulls. Jaws. Ribs. Dozens of teeth. A nearly complete foot. A hand, virtually every bone intact, arranged as in life. Minuscule bones of the inner ear. Elderly adults. Juveniles. Infants, identified by their thimble-size vertebrae. Parts of the skeletons looked astonishingly modern. But others were just as astonishingly primitive—in some cases, even more apelike than the australopithecines. “We’ve found a most remarkable creature,” Berger said. His grin went nearly to his ears.

But What Is It?

In paleoanthropology, specimens are traditionally held close to the vest until they can be carefully analyzed and the results published, with full access to them granted only to the discoverer’s closest collaborators. By this protocol, answering the central mystery of the Rising Star find—What is it?—could take years, even decades. Berger wanted the work done and published by the end of the year. In his view everyone in the field should have access to important new information as quickly as possible. And maybe he liked the idea of announcing his find, which might be a new candidate for earliestHomo, in 2014— exactly 50 years after Louis Leakey published his discovery of the reigning first member of our genus, Homo habilis.

In any case there was only one way to get the analysis done quickly: Put a lot of eyes on the bones. Along with the 20-odd senior scientists who had helped him evaluate the Malapa skeletons, Berger invited more than 30 young scientists, some with the ink still wet on their Ph.D.’s, to Johannesburg from some 15 countries, for a blitzkrieg fossil fest lasting six weeks. To some older scientists who weren’t involved, putting young people on the front line just to rush the papers into print seemed rash. But for the young people in question, it was “a paleofantasy come true,” said Lucas Delezene, a newly appointed professor at the University of Arkansas. “In grad school you dream of a pile of fossils no one has seen before, and you get to figure it out.”

The workshop took place in a newly constructed vault at Wits, a windowless room lined with glass-paneled shelves bearing fossils and casts. The analytical teams were divided by body part. The cranial specialists huddled in one corner around a large square table that was covered with skull and jaw fragments and the casts of other well-known fossil skulls. Smaller tables were devoted to hands, feet, long bones, and so on. The air was cool, the atmosphere hushed. Young scientists fiddled with bones and calipers. Berger and his close advisers circulated among them, conferring in low voices.

Delezene’s own fossil pile contained 190 teeth—a critical part of any analysis, since teeth alone are often enough to identify a species. But these teeth weren’t like anything the scientists in the “tooth booth” had ever seen. Some features were astonishingly humanlike—the molar crowns were small, for instance, with five cusps like ours. But the premolar roots were weirdly primitive. “We’re not sure what to make of these,” Delezene said. “It’s crazy.”  

The braincase of this composite male skull of H. naledi measures a mere 560 cubic centimeters in volume—less than half that of the modern human skull behind it.

Assembled from 3-D scans of individual fossils, a life-size rendering of H. naledi's hand displays curved fingers, a clue that the species had retained an ability to climb in trees and on rocks. The thumb, wrist, and palm bones all look remarkably modern.

The same schizoid pattern was popping up at the other tables. A fully modern hand sported wackily curved fingers, fit for a creature climbing trees. The shoulders were apish too, and the widely flaring blades of the pelvis were as primitive as Lucy’s—but the bottom of the same pelvis looked like a modern human’s. The leg bones started out shaped like an australopithecine’s but gathered modernity as they descended toward the ground. The feet were virtually indistinguishable from our own.

“You could almost draw a line through the hips—primitive above, modern below,” said Steve Churchill, a paleontologist from Duke University. “If you’d found the foot by itself, you’d think some Bushman had died.”

But then there was the head. Four partial skulls had been found—two were likely male, two female. In their general morphology they clearly looked advanced enough to be called Homo. But the braincases were tiny—a mere 560 cubic centimeters for the males and 465 for the females, far less than H. erectus’s average of 900 cubic centimeters, and well under half the size of our own. A large brain is the sine qua non of humanness, the hallmark of a species that has evolved to live by its wits. These were not human beings. These were pinheads, with some humanlike body parts.

The Sum of Its Parts
A composite skeleton reveals H. naledi’s overall body plan. Its shoulders, hips, and torso hark back to earlier ancestors, while its lower body shows more humanlike adaptations. The skull and teeth show a mix of traits.


“Weird as hell,” paleoanthropologist Fred Grine of the State University of New York at Stony Brook later said. “Tiny little brains stuck on these bodies that weren’t tiny.” The adult males were around five feet tall and a hundred pounds, the females a little shorter and lighter.

“The message we’re getting is of an animal right on the cusp of the transition from Australopithecus to Homo,” Berger said as the workshop began to wind down in early June. “Everything that is touching the world in a critical way is like us. The other parts retain bits of their primitive past.”


In some ways the new hominin from Rising Star was even closer to modern humans than Homo erectus is. To Berger and his team, it clearly belonged in the Homo genus, but it was unlike any other member. They had no choice but to name a new species. They called it Homo naledi (pronounced na-LED-ee), tipping a hat to the cave where the bones had been found: In the local Sotho language, naledi means “star.”

How Did It Get There?

Back in November, as Marina Elliott and her mates were uncovering that startling trove of bones, they were almost as surprised by what they weren’t finding. “It was day three or four, and we still hadn’t found any fauna,” Elliott said. On the first day a few little bird bones had been found on the surface, but otherwise there was nothing but hominin bones.

That made for a mystery as perplexing as that of H. naledi’s identity: How did the remains get into such an absurdly remote chamber? Clearly the individuals weren’t living in the cave; there were no stone tools or remains of meals to suggest such occupation. Conceivably a group of H. naledi could have wandered into the cave one time and somehow got trapped—but the distribution of the bones seemed to indicate that they had been deposited over a long time, perhaps centuries. If carnivores had dragged hominin prey into the cave, they would have left tooth marks on the bones, and there weren’t any. And finally, if the bones had been washed into the cave by flowing water, it would have carried stones and other rubble there too. But there is no rubble—only fine sediment that had weathered off the walls of the cave or sifted through tiny cracks.

“When you have eliminated the impossible,” Sherlock Holmes once reminded his friend Watson, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Having exhausted all other explanations, Berger and his team were stuck with the improbable conclusion that bodies of H. naledi were deliberately put there, by other H. naledi. Until now only Homo sapiens, and possibly some archaic humans such as the Neanderthals, are known to have treated their dead in such a ritualized manner. The researchers don’t argue that these much more primitive hominins navigated Superman’s Crawl and the harrowing shark-mouth chute while dragging corpses behind them—that would go beyond improbable to incredible. Maybe back then Superman’s Crawl was wide enough to be walkable, and maybe the hominins simply dropped their burden into the chute without climbing down themselves. Over time the growing pile of bones might have slowly tumbled into the neighboring chamber.

Deliberate disposal of bodies would still have required the hominins to find their way to the top of the chute through pitch-black darkness and back again, which almost surely would have required light—torches, or fires lit at intervals. The notion of such a small-brained creature exhibiting such complex behavior seems so unlikely that many other researchers have simply refused to credit it. At some earlier time, they argue, there must have been an entrance to the cave that afforded more direct access to the fossil chamber—one that probably allowed the bones to wash in. “There has to be another entrance,” Richard Leakey said after he’d paid a visit to Johannesburg to see the fossils. “Lee just hasn’t found it yet.”

An H. naledi group disposes of one of their own in Rising Star cave in this artist’s depiction. Though such advanced behavior is unknown in other primitive hominins, “there appears to be no other option for why the bones are there,” says lead scientist Lee Berger.

But water would inevitably have washed rubble, plant material, and other debris into the fossil chamber along with the bones, and they simply aren’t there. “There isn’t a lot of subjectivity here,” said Eric Roberts, a geologist from James Cook University in Australia, svelte enough to have examined the chamber himself. “The sediments don’t lie.”

Disposal of the dead brings closure for the living, confers respect on the departed, or abets their transition to the next life. Such sentiments are a hallmark of humanity. But H. naledi, Berger emphatically stresses, was nothuman—which makes the behavior all the more intriguing.

A New Kind of Ancestor
H. naledi was much closer in appearence to Homo species such as H. erectus than to australopithecines, such as Lucy. But it possesses enough traits shared with no other member of our genus that it warrants a new species name.

            1, "Lucy", Australopithecus afarensis, 3.2 million years ago, Adult Female, 3 ft 8 in, 60-65 lbs

            2, "Turkana Boy", Homo erectus, 1.6 million years ago, Adolescent Male, 5 ft, 110-115 lbs

            3, "Rising Star Hominin", Homo naledi, Date Unknown, Adult Male, 4 ft 10 in, 100-110 lbs

                             1                                    2                                                    3

“It’s an animal that appears to have had the cognitive ability to recognize its separation from nature,” he said.

How Old Is It?

The mysteries of what H. naledi is, and how its bones got into the cave, are inextricably knotted with the question of how old those bones are—and for the moment no one knows. In East Africa, fossils can be accurately dated when they are found above or below layers of volcanic ash, whose age can be measured from the clocklike decay of radioactive elements in the ash. At Malapa, Berger had gotten lucky: The A. sediba bones lay between two flowstones—thin layers of calcite deposited by running water—that could also be dated radiometrically. But the bones in the Rising Star chamber were just lying on the cave floor or buried in shallow, mixed sediments. When they got into the cave is an even more intractable problem to solve than how.

Most of the workshop scientists fretted over how their analysis would be received without a date attached. (As it turned out, the lack of a date would prove to be one impediment to a quick publication of the scientific papers describing the finds.) But Berger wasn’t bothered one bit. If H. naledi eventually proved to be as old as its morphology suggested, then he had quite possibly found the root of the Homo family tree. But if the new species turned out to be much younger, the repercussions could be equally profound. It could mean that while our own species was evolving, a separate, small-brained, more primitive-looking Homo was loose on the landscape, as recently as anyone dared to contemplate. A hundred thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Ten thousand? As the exhilarating workshop came to an end with that fundamental question still unresolved, Berger was sanguine as always. “No matter what the age, it will have tremendous impact,” he said, shrugging.

Berger’s Triumph

A few weeks later, in August of last year, he traveled to East Africa. To mark the occasion of Louis Leakey's description of H. habilis, Richard Leakey had summoned the leading thinkers on early human evolution to a symposium at the Turkana Basin Institute, the research center he (along with the State University of New York at Stony Brook) had established near the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

The purpose of the meeting was to try to come to some consensus over the confounding record of early Homo, without grandstanding or rancor—two vices endemic to paleoanthropology. Some of Lee Berger’s harshest critics would be there, including some who’d written scathing reviews of his interpretation of the A. sediba fossils. To them, he was an outsider at best, a hype artist at worst. Some threatened not to attend if he were there. But given the Rising Star discovery, Leakey could hardly not invite him.

“There’s no one on Earth finding fossils like Lee is now,” Leakey said.

For four days the scientists huddled together in a spacious lab room, its casement windows open to the breezes, casts of all the important evidence for early Homo spread out on tables. One morning Meave Leakey (who’s also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence) opened a vault to reveal brand-new specimens found on the east side of the lake, including a nearly complete foot. When it was his turn to speak, Bill Kimbel of the Institute of Human Origins described a new Homo jaw from Ethiopia dated to 2.8 million years ago—the oldest member of our genus yet. Archaeologist Sonia Harmand of Stony Brook University dropped an even bigger bombshell—the discovery of dozens of crude stone tools near Lake Turkana dating to 3.3 million years ago. If stone tools originated half a million years before the first appearance of our genus, it would be hard to argue anymore that the defining characteristic of Homo was its technological ingenuity.

Berger meanwhile was uncommonly subdued, adding little to the discussion, until the topic turned to a comparison of A. sediba and H. habilis. It was time.

“More of interest perhaps to this debate is Rising Star,” he offered. For the next 20 minutes he laid out all that had happened—the serendipitous discovery of the cave, the crash analysis in June, and the gist of its findings. While he talked, a couple of casts of Rising Star skulls were passed hand to hand.

Then came the questions. Have you done a cranio-dental analysis? Yes. TheH. naledi skull and teeth place it in a group with Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and modern humans. Closer to H. erectus than H. habilis is? Yes. Are there any tooth marks on the bones from carnivores? No, these are the healthiest dead individuals you’ll ever see. Have you made progress on the dating? Not yet. We’ll get a date sometime. Don’t worry.

Then, when the questions were over, the gathered doyens did something no one expected, least of all Berger. They applauded.

The Braided Stream

When a major new find is made in human evolution—or even a minor new find—it’s common to claim it overturns all previous notions of our ancestry. Perhaps having learned from past mistakes, Berger doesn’t make such assertions for Homo naledi—at least not yet, with its place in time uncertain. He doesn’t claim he has found the earliest Homo, or that his fossils return the title of “Cradle of Humankind” from East to South Africa. The fossils do suggest, however, that both regions, and everywhere in between, may harbor clues to a story that is more complicated than the metaphor “human family tree” would suggest.

“What naledi says to me is that you may think the record is complete enough to make up stories, and it’s not,” said Stony Brook’s Fred Grine. Maybe early species of Homo emerged in South Africa and then moved up to East Africa. “Or maybe it’s the other way around.”

Berger himself thinks the right metaphor for human evolution, instead of a tree branching from a single root, is a braided stream: a river that divides into channels, only to merge again downstream. Similarly, the various hominin types that inhabited the landscapes of Africa must at some point have diverged from a common ancestor. But then farther down the river of time they may have coalesced again, so that we, at the river’s mouth, carry in us today a bit of East Africa, a bit of South Africa, and a whole lot of history we have no notion of whatsoever. Because one thing is for sure: If we learned about a completely new form of hominin only because a couple of cavers were skinny enough to fit through a crack in a well-explored South African cave, we really don’t have a clue what else might be out there.

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