Intrepid group maps, surveys biology in several caves at Cloud 9 Ranch
An intrepid group of spelunkers was at Cloud 9 Ranch last week, venturing into several caves on the property, sometimes crawling on their bellies through low-ceilinged, water-filled, creek-bed passageways they call “ear-dippers” and “nose splashers” to survey the biology of the caves, looking for cave creatures, especially bats, and helping draft and improve cave maps.
What they found during their three-day stay Feb. 14-17, at least as far as the bat population goes, was disheartening, said Kirsten Alvey-Mudd, founder and executive director of the Missouri Bat Census, a nonprofit group that has surveyed Cloud 9’s caves multiple times. On this trip, Alvey-Mudd also served as lead field biologist, helping survey the caves’ “winter biology,” she said.
When the group surveyed Cloud 9’s caves in 2017, they saw the first symptoms of the deadly white nose syndrome in the bat population, a disease that is impacting bats nationwide. Generally, the disease reduces a bat population by 90 to 100 percent within two years, she said. When the cavers were at Cloud 9 in 2017, a few of the 790 bats they found – probably 30 or fewer, she said – showed symptoms of white nose symptom. Last week, in all the Cloud 9 caves they visited, they found only 53 healthy tricolor bats, plus 25 bats with white-nose symptoms.
On average, the Cloud 9 caves they surveyed had undergone a 91 percent reduction in the bat populations they had seen there previously, she said.
But there’s hope. “If these caves follow suit, as shown by caves throughout the state, the populations will very, very slowly start to rebuild. It’s slow because usually tricolor bats give birth to only one or two pups a year,” she said. “White-nose syndrome goes through a site the way disease usually goes through a population – like smallpox and other diseases went through Indian populations when Europeans first came here. Bats generally don’t have the ability genetically to fight the disease, but there will be a very few that do have the genetic disposition to survive, and those will be the ones that breed and begin the slow process of repopulating.”
Alvey-Mudd says she has loved caves – and bats – since she was 5 years old. “My parents weren’t cavers, but they encouraged me in my passion for caves and bats,” she said. “I had a cave for a clubhouse near the home where I grew up in Hannibal.”
She holds an undergraduate degree in wildlife biology and a master’s degree in bat biology, “but I couldn’t make a living doing that, so I went back to school to get a culinary arts degree and worked as a chef for 25 years,” she said. During that time she volunteered with wildlife conservation groups, and after she retired, she formed the Missouri Bat Census, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the study and protection of bats on both public and private lands.
The group’s most recent Cloud 9 trip was facilitated by Cloud 9 member Lee Krout, from the Kansas City area, who also belongs to the Kansas City Area Grotto of cavers and who participated in last week’s caves survey. The Kansas City grotto group has been actively mapping the Cloud 9 caves, both to assist in the biology surveys and also “in case someone gets lost in there someday,” Alvey-Mudd said.
Her husband, Jim Mudd, and three students from the Missouri School of Mines Spelunkers Club from Missouri S&T University in Rolla also participated, along with Ben Esker, a Missouri Bat Census volunteer from Raymondville.
In past years, group members have camped in tents on the ranch, but this year, Krout arranged for them to stay in trailers. Because crawling through mud and water in the caves is messy work, “we bring a lot of sets of gear along,” Alvey-Mudd said Monday night, adding that she was back home in Jefferson City and had done “10 loads of laundry” since her return.
Some of the cavers wear wet suits under their clothes; some don’t. She and her husband took “eight sets of boots,” she said. After completing a survey, cavers usually change into dry clothes before leaving the cave, putting their muddy clothes in trash bags and hauling them home to be laundered later.
On the Missouri Bat Census Facebook page, Alvey-Mudd recorded the biology survey for the last of the Cloud 9 caves they visited: seven healthy tri-color bats, three tri-color bats with white-nose syndrome, 15 grotto salamanders, eight western slimy salamanders, three dark-sided salamanders, one cave salamander, 13 pickerel frogs, crickets, Meta Ovalis spiders, raccoon scat and “raccoon claw marks in mud walls all the way to the last room in the cave.”
The cave surveys and “species diversity studies” keep Alvey-Mudd busy during the winte. In summer, the Missouri Bat Census members “look at mist nettings to track endangered species of bats in forests and tag trees so that the bats’ roosting trees are not logged,” she said. The group also does lots of “education and outreach work,” appearing at events to do bat-house marketing. They also do summertime cave work, surveying for salamanders and acquatics, cave fish, crawfish and other animals.