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Bat Crisis: The White-nose Syndrome
Knox News, August 22, 2009

White nose syndrome threatens state's bats
Fungus wings way to Tenn.

By Morgan Simmons

A mysterious fungus that has killed a more than a million bats in New England and the Mid-Atlantic region is moving south and will likely show up in Tennessee this winter, experts say.

First recorded in 2006 in a cave near Albany, N.Y., white nose syndrome now has spread to nine states, including a new outbreak last winter in Virginia just 30 miles from one of Tennessee's largest caves used by gray bats.

The white fungus infects hibernating bats, causing them to wake up and burn precious fat reserves. The bats fly early from their cave in search of food, and since the insects they normally eat are unavailable, they starve.

This summer, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis held a weekend workshop at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to explore white nose syndrome and develop strategies for managing it.

The workshop drew a diverse range of biologists, academicians and land managers from across the United States who agreed that the disease is spreading at an accelerated rate and has reached a critical stage.

"I believe this is going to be the biggest conservation crisis to impact bats since the deforestation of the continent in the previous century," said Gary McCracken, head of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee. "This is no longer a Northeast phenomenon. It's an Eastern phenomenon, and it's spreading south faster than it's spreading north."

Scientists believe the pathogen is an exotic fungus from Europe - Geomyces destructans - that thrives in cold environments.

They're working to develop mathematical models that predict when and where the fungus will next occur and are exploring the feasibility of various treatments that might at least slow the spread of the disease.

"This is a very difficult problem that is going to take real creative thinking," McCracken said. "We are at the front lines of the advance of this disease, and there are a large number of unknowns."

The fungus is spread primarily by bats but may unknowingly be transferred from cave to cave on the footwear or clothing of people visiting caves.

The disease does not appear to harm humans - or wildlife other than bats.

To control the spread of white nose syndrome, the U.S. Forest Service has temporarily closed thousands of caves and mines in national forests in 33 states. Other public closures in Tennessee include the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee state parks and forests, and caves owned by The Nature Conservancy.

Since 2006, the fungus has infected hibernating bats of six species, according to Bat Conservation International. Of particular concern are the federally endangered Indiana and gray bats - both of which hibernate in Tennessee caves.

This summer, staff from The Nature Conservancy, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be making a special effort to count out-flying bats with thermal infra-red cameras to establish the current populations and determine the overall health of Tennessee's bats.

White nose syndrome spreads rapidly through bat colonies; at one Northeastern site, the fungus killed at least 95 percent of the bats in just two years.

Cory Holliday, cave and karst manager for The Nature Conservancy, said the outbreak threatens decades of conservation work that has brought gray bats back from the brink of extinction.

"We have sites we've been working with since the 1980s where we've rehabilitated the population from a few hundred to 500,000 bats," Holliday said. "When something like this comes along and puts an entire population at risk, that's devastating."

With an estimated 9,600 caves, Tennessee has more caves than any other state.

Wildlife biologists say people likely will come across bats this winter that have died from white nose syndrome. The public is reminded to not handle bats under any circumstances due to the possibility of rabies.

Holliday said now is a good time to remind people that bats eat their body weight in bugs per night and are one of nature's most effective pest controls.

"Even though some people find these animals less than appealing, they perform a huge ecological service to humans," he said. "If we lose our night-flying bats, we're going to be in big trouble, especially in Tennessee, where we have so many caves and so much to lose."

Scripps Interactive Newspapers Group

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton