Delaware just joined Pennsylvania and New Jersey on the list of states with bat populations affected by white-nose syndrome.
The fungus, which grows on the ears, noses and wings of hibernating bats, has killed an estimated 5.5 million in 18 states in the eastern half of the U.S.
Now, it has been identified at a popular tourist destination in the First State — Fort Delaware, located in the Delaware River across from Delaware City.
The state’s only substantial hibernating bat population nestles into the nooks and crannies of the Civil War-era fort each winter.
Holly Niederriter, a wildlife biologist with the state, had crossed her fingers that conditions at the fort wouldn’t be as fungus-friendly as caves and mine shafts.
“We were kind of hoping that Fort Delaware would be sort of a safe haven for them,” Niederriter said. “Unfortunately, that turned out to not be the case.”
The park is now considering ways to prevent visitors from spreading the fungus. Once it opens in May, staff might chaperon tours to prevent people from touching the walls.
Visitors may be asked to step through a disinfectant foot bath prior to leaving.
Those visiting tourist caves in Pennsylvania already are asked to do that.
The fungus was confirmed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in 2009.
“It’s been moving south in Pennsylvania and it just got to a few sites in the southeastern part of our state as well,” said Greg Turner, an endangered mammal specialist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “We’re looking to confirm a county or two that are not too far away from the site in Delaware.”
Turner says the spread has been slow to reach Southeastern Pennsylvania because caves in the region are warmer, more spread out, and have smaller bat populations.